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Source: Review the literature

Introduction to reviewing the literature

The purpose of a literature search is to set up a framework for your topic, identify, select and synthesise, and find gaps in the published literature on a particular question or topic.

For information on using citation databases to locate and asses the literature please view our research performance guide which covers using metrics to measure the impact and quality of research. 

Some handy tips when starting your literature search:

  • Experiment using synonyms for your existing keywords
  • Remember to include British and US spellings if relevant to your subject area - ie haemorrhage / hemorrhage
  • Check if your subject databases use a database thesaurus or "controlled vocabulary"
  • Remember database search functions vary - check the help notes for details


Boolean operators can be used to combine search terms

  • use OR to indicate any additional alternative keywords of a specific concept eg aviation OR aircraft OR plane OR aeroplane
  • use AND to narrow your search results by showing articles that contain both the 1st and 2nd concepts eg aviation AND crash

  • use truncation (indicated by an asterisk * after a stem word to find variations of that word eg assess* finds assess, assessment

  • use quotation marks to denote a "phrase search" eg "Sydney Harbour Bridge"

  • others may be available in specific databases - ie wildcard (replaces a letter within a word) or proximity operators - check the help notes 


In most databases it's possible to narrow your search results by filtering or changing the order of the results list.

It may be helpful to limit results to:

  • A recent date range if currency is important
  • Peer reviewed results
  • a publication type ie thesis / conference paper etc

Search Alerts

In many databases it's simple to set up email alerts based on your search terms. You often need to register for an account with the database and information about setup is usually in the help menu (sometimes called saved searches).
This allows you to select:
  • to receive an email when new outputs that meet your criteria appear in the database or  
  • to receive a new list of search results by email periodically eg once a month

It may be helpful to create an alert based on:

  • keywords
  • a search string
  • an author - so you receive an alert when they publish new outputs
  • journal titles


Citation alerts

Citation databases like Web of Science, Scopus and Dimensions allow you to set up alerts so you'll be informed when an output is cited. A citation alert set up for articles particularly relevant to your research would enable you to keep up to date with new publications related to them.

The Search box offers 2 options:

  • search the ECU repository only or
  • search the Digital Commons, content from over 550 institutional repositories worldwide, by changing the search option to Across All Repositories
  • Searching Google and Google Scholar will also find outputs in Research Online


Find ECU Theses 

Browse the ECU Theses Collections on Research Online

  • there are two theses collections: PhDs & Masters and Honours.
  • theses are listed by year, then alphabetically by author's last name

Search Research Online for ECU thesis by topic

  • enter your keywords in the search box
  • use the refine panel in the results page to limit by Publication Type "thesis"


Search Research Online for ECU thesis by author

  • scroll down the author list and click on the author's name
  • in the results page, use the refine panel on the left to limit by Publication Type "thesis"

Search Research Online for ECU thesis by School
Searching for theses by a School's name may sometimes bring up theses which seem a little displaced - this is due to the fact that historically, your School may have been aligned with different Schools or Faculties in the past.

  • click on the Advanced Search button
  • enter the current School's name in the search box
  • click on the green + sign to add another search line
  • in the second search box, click on the drop down menu and select Document Type
  • type in thesis
  • click on Search


Accessing the fulltext of ECU theses on Research Online?
- most ECU theses are now available in fulltext
- some authors have restricted the fulltext of their theses to current ECU staff and students (email
- a small minority of authors have totally restricted access to their theses

Reference management systems like Endnote can assist with keeping track of the publications found during a review of the literature.

There are many other options for reference managers including:

ScitrusSCITRUS is a free content delivery service. Using machine learning to present research and news relevant to you. You can select your favorite authors, topics and journals to follow. The more you use SCTRUS the more it will learn what type of articles you want to read, you are also able to change settings to control if you only see the most relevant articles or all items that you might be interested in. You can also save articles to read later.

Click here to try SCITRUS


Literature reviews form a foundation of research and communication as well as informing practice. There are however common mistakes made when undertaking a research review that can lead to bias in any conclusions made. Neal Haddaway discusses 8 of these mistakes and possible solutions in the blog post: 8 common problems with literature reviews and how to fix them.

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