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English Studies: Literature

Search strategies and search techniques

Once you've come up with some search terms and chosen which databases to use, it is time to start searching. To improve your search you can use different search techniques. Below are some useful search tips that can be used in most databases. 

Combining search terms

  • Putting AND between your search terms means that all your search terms must be included in the list of results, for instance Dickens AND poverty.The more search terms you combine with AND, the fewer hits you will get. 

  • If you put OR between your search terms, that means one of the search terms must be in the result list. For example: victorian OR 19th century. Use OR when searching for synonyms and/or closely related terms in order to broaden your search. The more search words you combine with OR, the more hits you will get.

Search for a phrase

Use quotation marks “ ” when you want to search for a term that is made up of two or more words, for example, “science fiction”. You will get hits where your search terms occurs in that exact order. If you search for the same terms without the quotation marks, you will get hits where these two words occur separately in text as well. Using quotations you will get fewer, but probably more relevant hits.

Search for parts of words (truncation)

Search for the first part of a word followed by * to find all possible endings and inflected forms of the word. For example: modern* will generate results for modernist, modernism etc.

​You can use several of this search techniques together in the databases. We recommend using the advanced search form that you can find in most databases by clicking "Advanced search".

Limit your search

In some databases you have the option to limit your search to only include materials that have been scholarly refereed, or peer reviewed, by ticking the box that says "peer review". You can also limit your search by publication date, document type, language etc. Remember that not all literary research is published in scholarly journals and that research findings may stay relevant for longer within literary research compared to other fields, so don't discard a source just because it is not peer reviewed or was not recently published.

Adapt your search to the database

You may need to adapt your search depending on whether you are using a cross-disciplinary database or a subject specific one. For instance, let's say you are looking for research on Wilkie Collins's novel The Moonstone and search for "moonstone" in Libsearch, which is a search engine that searches most of the library's databases simultaneously. You will find many results that are indeed about Collins's novel, but you will also get results that are not relevant to you, such as articles on moonstone gems. To exclude these irrelevant results, you might need to add "wilkie collins" to your search. If however, you search MLA International Bibliography, which is a subject specific database devoted to literature, you do not need to specify that it is the novel and not the gem you're after. 

Search demonstration

Below is an example how you can turn your search terms from your worksheet into a database search. Use the advanced search mode and use one search bar for each aspect of your research question, combining your synonyms using OR:

Continue your search

Once you've found one useful source, you can continue your search based on that source. This search technique is called chaining.

Backward chaining

Check the reference lists of relevant sources to see which works they have cited. This is a good way of find earlier research about your topic.

Forward chaining

You can also check if your chosen source have been cited by someone else. This works best for sources that are a few years old, as they are more likely to have been cited than brand new sources. You can perform this type of search in a citation database such as Scopus or Web of Science, or in Google Scholar. Search for the title and click "Cited by..." to find other works citing your chosen source.