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Searching Scientific Literature

Reasons for Searching

Scientific research is a cumulative process with present research building upon a knowledge base of information that resides in the scientific literature. Following are three reasons why you may need to find, evaluate and use this literature.

  • Literature Review - as part of a research study or paper you may need to identify and review relevant information on a specific topic. The scope of the research will often determine the exhaustiveness of the review required. Graduate thesis work usually requires an extensive review of the literature. Researchers who begin work in a new area frequently need to review literature associated with their new area of interest. The goal is to become familiar with the knowledge base of scientific information on the topic so that 1) you can understand the topic and its major concepts; 2) you can place your research in context and 3) you can further develop your own ideas. 

The Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students video from North Carolina State University provides an excellent introduction to conducting an extensive literature review for a course assignment, capstone course, thesis, or other research.

WSU Libraries also provide workshops for conducting Literature Reviews as well as guidance and instruction in our Savvy Researcher Series.

Subject searching using discovery tools such as literature databases and catalogs and citation searching within the scientific literature can be used to identify literature on a specific topic.

  • Practical or Everyday Needs - find specific information needed for either experimental work or application of scientific understanding. It may be raw data for model building or analysis; collaborating data; information about a specific model, technique, or theory; the construction of experimental apparatus; a mathematical equation; an explanation for an observed phenomenon; or other similar needs. Informal communication with colleagues is a major source for meeting these needs. Handbooks, manuals and other reference works listed in the scientific Research Guides are also important sources for this type of information..
  • Current Awareness - keep current and informed about new literature and current progress in a specific area of interest. This is done in a number of ways, both informally in personal communication with colleagues and more formally through database sources and journal alerts. You can also use Literature Databases available to WSU students and faculty to do a subject search of recent literature added to a database. Most databases allow you to create a search profile that will be run periodically against new records added to the database.

Narrowing or Broadening Your Search Topic

Researchers usually focus on a specific attribute of the natural world. You should use a scientific mindset to first define a specific hypothesis or research question before looking for information that either substantiates or refutes the hypothesis or answers the research question. In some cases you will need to spend time working through your initial hypothesis to narrow your topic so you are not looking through volumes of information. In some cases you will need to broaden your original hypothesis, e.g. to a broader group of organisms.

As an example the general research topic of "giant squid" could be subdivided into five sub-topics of "location", "habitat", "predators", "anatomy" and "legends'. "Habitat" could then be subdivided into even more specific sub-topics. The goal is to eventually arrive at a workable hypothesis or research question.

giant squid topics 

Examples of research questions that could be formulated using the above include:

  1.         How does the giant squid navigate without light?


        2.         How does the giant squid cope with intense pressure?


        3.        What are the feeding habits of giant squid?

For other general concepts on narrowing or broadening your research topic see Library Research Strategies 


FOCUSING YOUR SEARCH--primary or secondary scientific literature

One of the first steps in developing a search strategy is deciding where to initially focus your literature search--primary or secondary literature. 

  • Publications that report the results of original scientific research constitute the primary literature of the sciences. Examples include journal papers, conference papers, monographic series, technical reports, and theses and dissertations.
  • Publications that synthesize and condense what is known on specific topics constitute the secondary literature. These include reviews, monographs, textbooks, treatises, handbooks and manuals. Because secondary literature in the sciences frequently provides a broader context and contains references to key primary literature this is often a good place to start. Scholarly books can be used to gain knowledge in a particular subject area, learn about the historical development of a topic and find out the names of key researchers and their publications. 

To search for primary literature use literature databases that are listed under A-Z Databases on the Library's web page. Every scientific discipline has at least one database to its research literature. You can use a combination of subject searching and citation searching to locate desired information.

To search for books and government documents that are part of the secondary literature use the WSU Libraries Online Catalog, the catalogs of Other Libraries and the Catalog of U.S. Government Publications. In addition many of the Research Guides developed by WSU librarians list important secondary reference tools in the WSU Libraries and on the Internet that can be used as starting points for research. Sometimes an older bibliography will comprehensively cover earlier primary literature.

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