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Skills for Learning: Finding Information & Reading


Finding information and literature searching

Literature searching is an organised way of finding good quality academic information. 'Academic literature' is research written and published by experts. It's found most often in academic books and journal articles.

Exploring existing literature is a crucial part of the research you will do for your assignments. This process helps you learn more about your topics. Use the information you find to support your ideas and arguments in your assignments.

For some of your assignments, you may be asked to write a literature review. Find out more on our Dissertations and Literature Reviews page. Some students may be asked to do a systematic review. This is a specific type of literature search which follows a strict methodology. Find out more on our Systematic Reviews page.

We run interactive workshops to help you prepare for work which involves finding and evaluating sources. Find out more on the Skills for Learning Workshops page.

We have online academic skills modules within MyBeckett for all levels of university study. These modules will help your academic development and support your success at LBU. You can work through the modules at your own pace, revisiting them as required. Find out more from our FAQ What academic skills modules are available?

Top searching tips

Whatever your project, these simple steps should help you find useful material. More detailed guidance is given below.

1. Getting started
  • Know what you are looking for. What is relevant and what can be ruled out?
  • Check your module reading lists for useful looking texts.
  • Try a variety of search terms in Discover and test what works best for this topic (students in some subjects, such as Law, will obtain better results by conducting an article search on one of the subject-specific databases).
2. Developing your research
  • Look out for alternative search terms. Article keywords and chapter headings may give you extra ideas.
  • Your Library subject guide will highlight further places to look for information. It’s a good idea to use more than just Discover or Google Scholar.
  • Many search engines also have results filtering options and other tools for precision searching. They will help you to search systematically and not miss useful sources.
3. Following the trails
  • Once you have found relevant information, it can point you to other useful material.
  • Look up relevant references or use a citation tracker (like the ‘cited by’ button in Google Scholar) to see who has cited a work recently, perhaps with more up-to-date information.
  • Then follow the trails from the bibliographies of these sources as well…

The more you read, the more keywords, authors and topics you will encounter. In this way, your growing knowledge of the topic will improve your searches.

Finally, remember to make a note of what you find. This will help you find the information again if necessary, and also with your referencing.

You can also reflect on this and develop your skills by watching a recording of our interactive workshop below.

Types of sources

Most of the sources you find when you are conducting your literature searching will be primary, secondary or tertiary:

Primary sources are original sources of information that provide first-hand accounts of what is being experienced or researched. They enable you to get as close to the actual event or research as possible. They are useful for getting the most contemporary information about a topic.

Examples include diary entries, newspaper articles, census data, journal articles with original reports of research, letters, email or other correspondence, original manuscripts and archives, interviews, research data and reports, statistics, autobiographies, exhibitions, films, and artists' writings.

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Some information will be available on an Open Access basis, freely accessible online. However, many academic sources are paywalled, and you may need to login as a Leeds Beckett student to access them. Where Leeds Beckett does not have access to a source, you can use our Request It! Service.

Secondary sources interpret, evaluate or analyse primary sources. They're useful for providing background information on a topic, or for looking back at an event from a current perspective. The majority of your literature searching will probably be done to find secondary sources on your topic.

Examples include journal articles which review or interpret original findings, popular magazine articles commenting on more serious research, textbooks and biographies.

The term tertiary sources isn't used a great deal. There's overlap between what might be considered a secondary source and a tertiary source. One definition is that a tertiary source brings together secondary sources.

Examples include almanacs, fact books, bibliographies, dictionaries and encyclopaedias, directories, indexes and abstracts. They can be useful for introductory information or an overview of a topic in the early stages of research.

Depending on your subject of study, grey literature may be another source you need to use. Grey literature includes technical or research reports, theses and dissertations, conference papers, government documents, white papers, and so on.

Searching for sources

There are two main literature searching methods:

  • Using search terms - which involves searching catalogues, databases and search engines using combinations of keywords or phrases relating to your research topic.
  • Using citations - whereby having found relevant sources you use their bibliographies to find sources they cite.
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Discover is a good place to start your information searching – it’s an academic search engine that searches a wide range of Leeds Beckett resources. Use your search terms in the basic search screen or add more criteria in the Advanced Search screen. In an Advanced Search, you can limit to certain formats (books, eBooks, articles, etc.), specific date ranges or peer-reviewed articles.

Subject-specific databases will also be useful to you. These databases have similar features to Discover but contain a more focussed collection of sources. Your Library subject guide will recommend databases in your subject area.

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Once you find a useful journal article you can use Google Scholar or the abstract and citation database Scopus to see if anyone else has cited that source. This is called citation searching. It’s a good way of bringing your research up to date by finding more recent scholarly research which used the original source. It’s also a useful way of finding other sources that may be relevant to you.

It’s also useful to have a look at a source’s bibliography/list of references/footnotes to see what information the author consulted. This often gives you a useful set of relevant sources that you could then look for and read. However, it’s important to note that these sources will be older than the original one.

You can check to see if Leeds Beckett has these sources by searching for the book or article title on Discover or by looking for the journal on the Ejournals A-Z list. If we don’t and you’d still like to read it, you may be able to find the source from another library.

Search techniques

When you enter your keywords or search terms into a database there are techniques you can try which may help you find the most relevant information. The worksheet below tells you how to do this and you can also use it to keep a record of your own searches.

Finding sources from other libraries

Although we have thousands of resources at Leeds Beckett, you might not always find everything you need. This is particularly the case when you are researching for your dissertation or final year project. If you want to do a thorough piece of research, you may want to use source from other libraries. You can try one of the following options:

If you can't find the item you need in the Library try our 'Request It' service. Final year undergraduates, postgraduates and staff should use this service to apply for an interlibrary loan. Through this scheme, we can try and borrow the book or article from another library for you. Library staff might decide to buy the resource if we think it will be useful to other students or staff. 

SCONUL Access allows you to visit other UK or Irish university libraries to look at their books and journals (full-time undergraduate students can't borrow, but still have reference access).Apply for SCONUL Access online and register with your Leeds Beckett email address. You can search on Library Hub Discover to identify which other university library has a particular book or printed journal. Always check a library’s current access arrangements before you go.

You could visit the British Library Reading Room at the Document Supply Centre, Boston Spa. You can't borrow from this library, but you can consult millions of items. You can pre-register for a Reading Room pass and order your material online before visiting on the British Library's website.

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You could search the Leeds Public Library Catalogue to see if the public libraries in Leeds have the book you are looking for. You can join online if you're not already a member. There are also some specialist libraries in the area that you could make use of, particularly if you are doing historical research. There's a list of local archives and libraries you can contact or visit on the History subject guide.

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Developing a search strategy

A search strategy is an organised structure of search terms. A strategy will help you to be focussed and methodical, and save you time. It can also increase your chances of finding relevant information.

Use a variety of terms in different combinations so you find as many relevant sources as possible. Think about what words or phrases are key to understanding your topic: you want to try to capture the range of language used by authors. You can then use these core terms to build a list of broader, narrower and related terms. Dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopaedias or simple web searches can help you come up with these alternative search terms.

Top tips! To record your search terms, try drawing a mind map. Alternatively, you may want to create a table like this:

Research topic: social media and ethics
Broader terms: mass media, online communication, multimedia, internet etiquette, values, moral principles
Core search terms: social media ethics
Narrower terms: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, blog, vlog cyberbullying, sexting, netiquette
Related terms: social network, media platform privacy, security, legality, responsible

You can download and use the Creating Search Terms Template to help you keep a record of your search terms.

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When creating your search strategy, it’s important to think about what information is going to be relevant to you. This is often called inclusion/exclusion criteria. If you are a Health student, you will be asked to do this in a more formal way when conducting Systematic Reviews. No matter what your subject, though, it’s sensible to decide exactly what information you need:

  1. How far back do you need to read? Decide on the time span that’s relevant to your research. Are you looking for the latest research or a historical perspective? You can add date ranges to your searches to exclude results that are too old.
  2. Do you only want to read research from scholarly/academic peer-reviewed journals? Or are you happy to look at news/trade/magazine publications? Peer-reviewed journal articles are written by experts and reviewed by other experts in the field before publication. You may be expected to look at these high-quality academic sources only. But, depending on your subject, it may be relevant to consult more mainstream literature.

You should always evaluate your sources carefully, particularly if they are not peer-reviewed. It's important to use the right sort of sources for the task you've been set.

Saving results

It’s always important to save your search results methodically. This ensures you can retrieve them later when you want to consult them in more detail. It also helps you remember where you obtained your information so you don’t accidentally plagiarise. As you begin to collect sources, you could categorise and arrange them by theme. This strategy will also help you organise your ideas when writing your assignment.

Most databases have several options for saving so you can choose the one that best suits your needs:

This is a good way of quickly saving results. You can then go to your inbox later to look at them in more detail.

You may want to download a PDF version of the article to save to your device or upload to cloud storage (e.g.OneDrive). It’s a good idea to set up folders for each assignment so you remember what the source is for. If you do download a PDF, make sure you also record the source's bibliographic details so that you can reference it.

It's often possible to create a personal account within a database. This is useful if you know you will be going back to a resource regularly. You can save your results and even your searches in some cases, so you can re-run them later. When you log into Discover, you can also create personal lists. Click the 'Save' button next to the records you're interested in to move them into a list. You can create multiple lists to organise your research methodically.

Reference management software (also known as citation management software or bibliographic management software) helps you keep reference records. It often allows you to add bibliographic citations or references directly to assignments. There is reference management software guidance on the Library website.

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Evaluating search results

Once you start finding sources, it’s important to analyse them before using them for your assignments. This helps you determine whether the sources are relevant, but it’s also crucial in assessing their credibility. A credible source will be of high academic quality, timely and trustworthy. Your tutors will look at your references to see if they meet these criteria.

You will have heard of terms such as ‘post truth’ and ‘fake news’, so it’s essential you develop skills to critically evaluate the information you find. Using credible sources to back up your argument makes your writing more persuasive and shows critical thinking. Download the Evidence Matrix Worksheet to help you.

A popular evaluation framework is the CRAAP Test. Download the CRAAP Test Worksheet to help you identify the reliability of your sources.

Or, you can evaluate each source you locate using the 'REVIEW' criteria in the worksheet below. You can also use this worksheet to record your evaluation of sources.

Current awareness

If you are doing a more in-depth piece of literature searching, it’s a good idea to keep up to date with the latest research on your topic. Most databases allow you to set up email alerts to notify you when new research matches your search criteria. You could set up multiple alerts for different topics or different search criteria.

You can also use 'table of contents' (TOC) services such as Journal TOCs. These allow you to create alerts for the journals that you know publish articles in your research area. This way, you will be informed as soon as the journal publishes a new issue.



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