Conduct literature search

A search and analysis of the scientific literature relevant to the research question under consideration is essential for developing the research questions and/or hypotheses and a solid research plan. Previous familiarity with the literature in the field is helpful, but a comprehensive and targeted review of the most relevant publications is usually necessary to comply with the norm of taking into account the latest scientific insights and to correctly credit authors with primacy for novel ideas and findings (recommendation 16 San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment). All information from reliable sources should be considered, whether it is found in peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, presented at scientific conferences, or otherwise made available through such mechanisms as websites, databases or personal communications. Scientific literature is a source of data in and of itself. Scientific transparency and reproducibility are best served when literature search, retrieval, extraction, and interpretation are documented, even if the literature review is not the primary goal of the study itself.

Maintaining a research log and documenting search strategies may serve collaborative approaches to literature search (i.e., by having peers reviewing your search strategies), increase efficiency (i.e., allowing easy updating of literature between searching literature for the research proposal and writing or revising the research report), and counteract potential biases in citation of previous work. Important to consider is that a similar phenomenon may sometimes be studied under different labels in parallel fields with very little reciprocal citation and with boundaries and distinctions not always be that clear (e.g., research on self-control, self-regulation, effortful control, executive functioning). Using a thesaurus (e.g., MeSH: Medical Subject Headings) or machine learning supported reference screening (e.g., ASReview) may sometimes help to overcome this problem and widen the scope of your search.

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the literature in the relevant and associated fields of study in preparation for formulating a preliminary research question or hypothesis.
  • Conduct an in-depth review of the literature most relevant to the preliminary research question or hypothesis to refine the research question or hypothesis.
  • Repeat this process, resulting in the statement of a definitive research question or hypothesis.
  • Consult the literature periodically to ensure that all relevant new information is available to the research project.
Help and advice with literature searching: