Finding and using literature

In this section you’ll find information and guidance on the literature search and evaluation elements of your literature review.
To find out more about subject specific databases, see the relevant Subject Guide on the Library Gateway.

What is a literature review?
The exact nature of a literature review depends on your research area- check with your supervisor about their expectations. You can also find guidance on literature reviewing in the library- there are a number of books available on the topic.

Across all disciplines the purpose of a literature review is to provide a structured discussion of the literature which is relevant to your research topic.

A good literature review is not simply a description of the literature, nor a mere list. A good literature review frames the discussion around your research topic, using the ideas / results of previous work; it engages all of the literature, not just the work which agrees with a particular view; and it is critical in its use of the literature.

Before you begin searching for literature you will need to develop a clear idea of the research question you wish to answer. This does not have to be the final title for your research, but should be focused enough to help with your literature search.

Planning your literature search for the literature review
As you begin your search should consider:

    • which types of source are likely to contain the information relevant to your research
      • Which media are used in your discipline? Articles, monographs, conference papers, artefacts and performances…
      • Do you need to use datasets / figures / statistics?
    • where and how will you find them
      • journal articles and books can be found- and in many cases obtained- via Library Search and the subject databases
      • datasets can be found in several places. Some may be with the associated research publication; some may be on a specialist data archive, such as ; some may be on a dedicated government site, such as
      • statistics can be found via government and organisation sites
      • some material may not be available electronically – this could include grey literature, documents in archives, artefacts
    • using what you already know
      • knowledge from previous study or research can help in identifying sources and creating search terms
      • materials used in applications can form the base for your search, for example you can look in the reference lists / bibliographies for further useful sources.
Searching the databases
An A-Z of databases available at SHU can be found here.

Your first searches will most likely be for specific items– for example, an article in the bibliography of a book you read as part of your application.

As you read these specific items, you will develop an understanding of your topic. You will identify important authors, concepts, results etc. All of these can form the base for search terms. You can also use search terms from your research question.

Many databases will have a thesaurus or subject terms. You can use this feature to look for search terms- it can be helpful to check if your search terms match the thesaurus, and the thesaurus can also suggest additional search terms.

As you search, take note of the results. If they are not quite what you need- perhaps there are too few results, or a lot of irrelevant items- you might need to:

  • modify your search terms – for example, use synonyms e.g. adolescent OR teenager
  • try new search terms, or new combinations
  • try other search engines / databases
Finding sources at other libraries

If a resource that you need isn’t available via the Library Gateway, you can request the resource or try to find it at another library.

Requesting resources

We welcome suggestions for new books for library stock.

Document Delivery Services may be able to obtain books, journal articles, conference papers, and other items for you via Inter Library Loan from the British Library.

Using other libraries

You may also be able to access the resource at another library.  Reciprocal borrowing agreements give you access to many other public and academic libraries.

Academic grey literature - conferences and theses
Conferences are fantastic sources of information for keeping up-to date with developments within your field (see below).

You can find out about forthcoming conferences in your subject by using:

  • email discussion lists
  • social media networks
  • research groups
  • professional organisations

Some databases index conference papers. Have a look at the Subject Guide in your area for more information on what the databases cover.

Web of Science, a large multidisciplinary database, indexes conferences as well as other material – use the conference field in the search boxes.

You can also try the Directory of Published Papers (DoPP).
Doctoral and research Masters theses have been through a comprehensive review process to ensure their quality, and are often quoted in academic work. Undergraduate and taught Masters theses will not include marks (for confidentiality reasons) and it can be difficult to judge their quality.

All PhD and MPhil theses written by SHU students are available in the Library. Details of SHU theses can be found via Library Search.

SHURA (Sheffield Hallam University Research Archive) provides electronic access to some SHU Doctoral theses.

You can use the resources below to find doctoral theses from other institutions:

You can search the library catalogues of universities in other countries to find details of the theses produced by their students. If there is a postgraduate thesis you need, the Library’s Document Delivery  Service will try to obtain it.

The following sources may help you to find theses & dissertations in progress:

  • the Universal Index of Doctoral Dissertations in Progress gives international coverage and allows researchers to post details of their work. Usually details include title, author, institution and supervisor details with a summary of the research topic. The database is not comprehensive.
  • Research Councils UK gateway to research gives access to information about publicly funded current research projects and outcomes of past projects. Some of the research will be doctoral level research.
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council awarded grants includes current and completed research grants, institute projects, fellowships, studentships and training grants which are funded by BBSRC
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council themes gives details of current awards and funding opportunities are given under each theme
  • Current Legal Research Topics Database covers research in progress by students studying for higher degrees in law in the UK.
  • History Online: Theses has information about history PhDs and research Masters, collected by the Institute of Historical Research. You can browse or search the directory of theses completed from 1970 onwards and current research in progress
  • Directory of History Dissertations from the American Historical Association. Lists theses in progress and completed at universities in the USA and Canada.
Sites useful for finding non-academic grey literature
Citation searching
What is it?

Imagine you have identified the classic paper within your area and wish to explore how the field has developed since that paper was published. Citation searching allows you to follow the research trail forward and backwards in time.

Following the trail backwards:

            • Look at the references at the end of the paper to understand which papers and which researchers the author had read and cited.

Following the trail forwards:

            • Explore who has cited the article since it was published.

Which databases offer citation searching?

Many specialist resources provide access to articles which enable you to:

            • view the references at the end of an article of interest
            • find articles which have cited an article of interest by using the “Times Cited” or “Cited by” options

Citation searching is available in a number of specialist sources. When choosing which source to citation search within you should consider the following points:

            • Does the resource cover my research?
            • What is the range and coverage of the citation data?
            • Do I need to run citation searches in multiple sources?

We recommend that you find cited by data using Web of Science or Scopus in addition to other sources you have used for subject searches.

Analysing results
Some specialist resources and databases offer tools to enable you to analyse the results of a search you have done.

For example you may have found a number of results matching a keyword search. You could analyse the results to find:

            • which authors published the most papers in your list of results
            • in which journals the papers most commonly appeared
            • the organizations the authors were affiliated with

This can help you to identify:

            • authors whose work you may want to read (you can then search for them to find out what else they have published)
            • journals you should be looking at
            • organizations you could search for

Looking beyond the results of your search

When you have searched a database you will be able to look at your list of results. You can also use database / article page prompts to locate additional content that may match your search or research interest. These are often described as:

            • latest articles
            • related articles
            • recommended articles
            • article suggestions
            • top articles
            • related searches
            • times cited/cited by
            • titles with your search terms
Finding data
You can find data by:

            • using specialist sites such as the UK Data Service and
            • using research data repositories such as SHURDA and ORDA
            • searching for the type of data you want in an internet search engine, e.g. ‘mortality rates data’ You can use the filetype limiter to look for file formats e.g. filetype:xlsx, filetype:csv, filetype:accdb
Evaluating sources
Having found your sources, you need to select those you want to read. You should have a set of criteria to help make these choices – these could be very detailed if your literature review is part of a systematic review. The criteria will vary from project to project, but common criteria are:

            • the authority and credibility of the source
            • the relevance of the source material
            • the age of the source
Retractions and corrections

Corrections are an important part of ensuring the body of information is reliable and are often included by the publishers of articles where it is thought these are necessary. If you find an article of interest, it can also be helpful to look out for:

            • corrections related to the article from the authors or journal editor
            • correspondence related to the article in later issues of the journal that provide discussion or challenge, in the form of comments or expressions of concern


In some cases, the issues with an article may be of a magnitude that requires it to be retracted by the authors or by the journal editor. The types of issues which cause retractions range from honest errors to misconduct such a plagiarism or fabrication. When a retraction occurs the article is NOT removed from the journal in print or online. The publisher will usually alert you to the fact that an article has been retracted, however this appears in different ways in different journals and library databases. Look out for notes and watermarks identifying retracted articles.

Retraction Watch is a blog following retractions. It can be a good way of keeping up to date with retractions and an interesting read for researchers.