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STEM Graduate Student Research

An introduction to the research process and useful tools for Penn State STEM graduate students.
See also General Library Services for borrowing, InterLibrary loan and course reserves

Top Five Literature Searching Tips!

1. Choose the right database! No sense searching for genetic information in an art database
2. Choose the right keywords! Retrieving the best articles relies on using the right terms
  • Identify the main concepts of your topic. 
  • Brainstorm synonyms and alternative phrasings for each of your main concepts. Focus on using nouns and only use verbs or adjectives if necessary. Don't use minor words such as "the," "in," "on," or "of". Consider British as well as American spelling.
  • See if your subject database has specific thesaurus terms that relate directly to your search concepts. A database thesaurus will identify the proper terms to use in that database and will also suggest broader, narrower, and related terms for you to consider.
3. Learn how to combine search terms properly.  Librarians call this "boolean searching"
  • AND narrows a search - both terms must be present
  • OR broadens a search - either term will be present
  • NOT/NO eliminates items - one term is not present
4. Learn to use advanced search features such as truncation, phrase searching, and search limiting
  • Truncation: in many databases you can use an asterisk (*) to retrieve items with various word endings and spellings. For example:  child*  will find child, children, or childish. Other frequently used truncation symbols include a question mark (?) or a dollar sign ($).
  • Phrase Searching: most databases require quotation marks around the phrase. A phrase search will then locate only records containing the words in the particular order in which they appear.   Example: "invasive species" instead of: invasive species
  • Limiting: many databases have advanced limiting features relevant to the subject.  Check for limiting by year, publication type (e.g. research article or review article), gender, or age groups.
5. Follow the citations: find more studies is by using citation searching.
  • Backward searching: look through the reference lists of articles you have found. The reference studies are likely to be quite relevant for you as well.

One More Tip!

Evaluate and modify your search as necessary.                 It’s a reiterative (and some would say never-ending) process.

Arrows showing the circular process of Entering a Search; Evaluating Results; Determining new terms and limits; (re)Entering the search

  • Did you get what you expected to get from you search terms?
  • Did you too much information?  Try these strategies:
    • Add another concept
    • Use only assigned keywords/topics results in major focus of the article (relevancy)
    • Search by a notable author
    • Use Limits: dates, gender, language, publication type etc. 
  • Too little information?  Try these strategies
    • Remove a concept
    • Use more general terms and don’t limit terms to assigned fields.
    • Try another database
    • Don't use limits
  • Are there other relevant keywords that are showing up in your results?
  • Are the authors accredited scholars and researchers?

How do you know when you are finished?  When you are no longer seeing anything new in your searches, cited bys, and bibliographies!

Find Specific Materials

How do you find specific material? Check these guides for step by step suggestions!

Stay up to date!

Once you have done your initial literature review, try some of these strategies for discovering newly published articles

  • Sign up at your favorite journal's homepage to get that journal's table of contents sent to you via email each time a new issue is published. 
  • Get search updates sent from your favorite database. This often requires signing up for an account. Then check for "saved search" or "alert" features.  For example in Google Scholar, select "create alert" (bottom of left column) after you have completed your search.
  • Create alerts for when a new article cites an older one (via Google Scholar or Web of Science)
  • Follow your favorite researcher on twitter!