In an ideal world, you plan your study after you’ve done an initial search of the literature. Your literature search then informs the development of your research question. I have found it’s better to be at place #1 than #2, but the search strategies below should help in either case.
If you’re at place #2 and you’re not finding enough sources, consider stepping back from your topic. Take a look at Steps 1 and 2 – brainstorming and creating search terms – in the outline below. You probably need to think more broadly about your topic. This doesn’t mean you have to scratch your narrow research question. It just means you’ll approach the databases and scholarly literature with broader concepts.
Many times, it comes down to search terms. A rookie mistake is to assume there’s nothing on your topic because you didn’t find any relevant articles after one or two searches. If this happens, go back to your search terms. Can you think of synonyms? Have you tried different combinations of those synonyms? Did you try your search in a variety of databases and search engines? If you’re still stuck, I can help you brainstorm a list of search terms that will work well in the library databases.
1. Brainstorming: You want to get a bird’s eye view of your topic, so you have to parse out all the different ways your topic can be explored. Make a list of all the ways you can approach your topic. Think of other disciplines that might cover it.
2. Create search terms: Good search terms are concrete, specific, and often nouns. Avoid phrases. Think of synonyms, especially as you venture outside of the sociology journals. Different disciplines use different terminology, and at this stage, you want to be as broad as possible.
3. Decide where to search: At this stage, try a mix of databases and search engines. Start with a broad, general database, like Google Scholar* or Academic Search Premier. Then move into the sociology databases. I recommend Sociological Abstracts and SocINDEX. Also try databases in other disciplines. If you’re not sure where to look, ask me!
*This link to Google Scholar will connect with the Brandeis databases so you can easily access the full text PDFs.
A Note on JSTOR: I love JSTOR, and it’s really easy to use. However, our collection of social science journals in JSTOR skews older (pre-2009). Most of our current holdings (2009-present) are in other databases–mostly SocIndex (EBSCO) and Sociological Abstracts (ProQuest).
4. Choosing the best hits: Often searching the scholarly literature doesn’t give you exactly what you want right away. It’s a little more complex than searching Google for a good coffee shop. You may find your search gives too few relevant articles, or you get so many that you’ll never have time to go through them all.
If you aren't getting enough relevant hits...
If you're getting too many hits and feeling overwhelmed...
Still need some help with evaluating your sources? Check out these inforgraphics:
5. Reading: You’re at the overview stage, so it doesn’t make sense to read everything. Skimming is just fine. Usually, you can get by with just reading the abstracts and conclusions of scholarly articles. You’ll want to save those articles for later though, so that leads right into #6… saving and organizing
6. Get organized! If you have a preferred citation management tool (EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley, etc.) start using it, even this early. If you don’t have one, this is the best time to find what works for you. You may not have time later on to learn additional software.
Literature reviews can be a valuable road map to sources on your topic. You can often find extensive literature reviews in dissertations and theses, and in Annual Reviews. Annotated bibliographies, such as those found in Oxford Bibliographies, can also be useful guides to the literature.