Five essential tips to get the most out of hitting the books

Searching the literature is an essential part of any chemist’s career. Whether it’s to write a review, establish what research is being done in your area or to set the scene for your latest paper, it’s a skill that’s worth honing. We spoke to three experts for their tips: Phil Dyer is a reader at the University of Durham, UK, Marcia Ostrowski is a librarian at the University of Southampton, UK and Allison Kirsop provides skills courses to students, including those embarking on their first literature search.

Take time to plan

Before starting, our experts suggest taking some time to work out what type of literature search you plan to do and why. Is it for a comprehensive review that will cover a substantial timeframe, or a systematic search for how to make a specific complex? ‘Don’t sit and do a database search to begin with – there’s work to be done before that stage,’ cautions Kirsop.

‘The aim of a literature search is to do an organised and systematic – and these are the keywords – search on a topic that has been identified,’ says Ostrowski. Dyer agrees: ‘Decide what and why you’re doing the literature search for. Have a clear idea of the topic or problem specifically. Also, don’t forget who the audience or journal will be.’

‘It takes time, but in the long run it saves people’s time,’ adds Ostrowski.

Start broad

It may be controversial, but Dyer suggests beginning a literature search with Google. ‘When you start to use some of the more specific databases – Web of Science or SciFinder – you tend to struggle more because they’re very specific in what they pick up in the search terms. Google is much better at taking a general inquiry and translating it into something that does a pretty good search.’

Google, or Google Scholar, can be an easy way to get a good overview on a topic, which can used as a springboard from which to refine your search. ‘But treat the results with a bit of a pinch of salt depending on where they come from,’ cautions Dyer.

Kirsop also suggests some general research before moving onto databases. ‘Start with two or three reviews before going to do a database search because then you can cross check what you find,’ she advises.

Define the specifics

Once you’ve done an initial search you can identify the keywords and phrases that can be used in a database inquiry. Coming up with a search strategy that will bring up a good selection of results is the step that can often be the most difficult. ‘Leave time for searching,’ says Ostrowskki. ‘People underestimate the amount of time it’s going to take.’

Ostrowski also encourages students to become familiar with how their chosen systems work. ‘Every database is slightly different,’ she says. ‘Understand the tools of your database. For example not everyone uses wild cards in exactly the same way.’

Think about alternate variations of your search terms. Does your keyword of choice have both British and US spellings? Ensure to search under both terms to bring up a full set of results.

Keep track of what you’ve found

Be efficient when scanning the literature. When reading articles that seem relevant, start off by reading the abstract, then the conclusion. Only if they are useful to your needs should you delve deeper into the paper. ‘Always keep in mind you’re looking for relevant literature. It has to be focused, relevant and objective,’ says Kirsop.

Once your search is underway you will need some way of storing and organising the articles you have found. ‘There a number of programmes you can get to help you keep track,’ says Dyer. Examples include Papers, Mendeley and EndNote: add notes to each article to help you remember what was useful in each of them. These types of reference management software can also identify duplicates if different databases pull up the same articles and help you to cite references accurately and comprehensively. ‘Make the technology work for you, don’t work for the technology,’ says Ostrowski. ‘Every database has a search history – save it!’

Cite and critique

With millions of new papers published every year, the number of articles out there can feel overwhelming. One way to stay up to date is to sign up for journal alerts on keywords or topics that interest you. But, says Dyer, no literature review will be completely comprehensive. ‘It’s almost impossible to be aware of all the literature. Your search is always going to have a degree of error associated with it.’ Instead, be open with your audience about the scope of your search.

Also be aware of the type of article you’re citing. Don’t rely too much on reviews, make sure you have original work and don’t forget key papers. ‘It’s good to be up-to-date, but older literature is vital underpinning information and is often forgotten,’ says Dyer.

Finally don’t be afraid to critique the papers you find. ‘It’s important to be critical. That’s what people tend not to do,’ says Dyer. It’s OK to say previous authors have got it wrong.