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  • Writer's pictureMatthew B. Courtney, Ed.D.

Tips for Searching the Research Literature

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

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As you work to solve complex problems of practice during your continuous improvement cycles, you will undoubtedly be faced with a need to explore the research literature. The education field has a rich catalogue of research journals that publish studies on nearly any topic you can think of. Unfortunately, database technology has not fully caught up with the easy going search engines you may be used to. In this post, I want to give some advice to help you navigate research databases and find literature that will help inform your work.

Selecting a Database

There are dozens of databases available to help you comb through the mountains of research literature published every year. When selecting a database, there are a few things you want to consider. First, you should prioritize databases that are as comprehensive as possible. Not every journal is going to be listed in every database. You want to find a database that catalogues as many journals as possible. This will save you immense time and effort down the road.

Next, you should consider access. Most databases cost money, so you should consider the benefits of subscribing to one database over another. The benefits of a database subscription are that paid databases generally have stronger search algorithms along with easier access and download options for the articles they house. Free databases offer less frills and sometimes only list titles and abstracts of papers – meaning you have to pay or search for actual article texts in other ways.

For my money (which is $0.00), I prefer to utilize a combination of the ERIC database and the Interlibrary Loan program at my local public library. The ERIC database is a free, open source database funded by the US Department of Education. It archives a long list of journal titles and includes a user friendly interface. It lacks some of the frills and advanced search options as some subscription databases, but for me, it gets the job done. If an article isn’t available for download on ERIC, I send it over to my local public library. The librarians there are often able to use their Interlibrary Loan system to get a copy of the article for me. It takes a little extra time, but at the low, low cost of $0.00 it gets the job done.

Consider Multiple Search Terms

Database algorithms aren’t as intuitive as Google or Bing. They aren’t very good at guessing for what you might be looking for and they certainly aren’t going to serve up suggestions for similar talking points. Before you begin your search, start by creating a list of multiple search terms that you will use. For example, let’s say I want to understand the experience of English learners. My search term might be “English learners”. Before I even open my browser, I am going to pull together a list of alternative search terms that might help me get to the heart of my question. I might also search “English language learners”, “foreign language students”, “English learner literacy”, “English learner experience”, “immigrant students”, etc… By arming myself with a list of search terms ahead of time, I will have a more productive literature review experience.

Keep a Log

If your days look anything like mine do, you probably lack the luxury of completing your literature search in a single sitting. That is why it is so important that you keep a thoughtful log of your searches. Your log should include the date of your search, the key words you used that day, the databases you searched, and any articles you pulled. There is nothing worse than opening your article folder to find that you downloaded the same article six times because you kept getting distracted. A log will help you keep your place and continue to make meaningful progress on your project.

Apply Filters

When searching for interesting articles, always apply filters to narrow down the number of articles in your search results. A simple search like “math achievement” may return tens of thousands of articles! You can’t possibly sift through all of those, so the built in filters can help. Start by filtering down your articles to include only those published within a given date range – usually five to ten years. Next, apply the “peer reviewed” filters to sort out white papers, opinion pieces, or editorials that may have been included. If you still have an unreasonable number of articles to search, check out some of the more bespoke filters your database may offer – such as location or study design filters.

Skim Abstracts before Downloading

Academic databases will always include the title and abstract of a research paper in the search results. Abstracts are short summaries of the paper. A well written abstract usually includes a little background information, a brief description of the methods deployed, and a discussion of the findings. Abstracts can save you a lot of time in the long run because titles alone can sometimes be deceptive. Skim the abstracts and only download articles that are actually relevant to your research topic.

Follow the Citation Train

As you read the papers you have downloaded, make notes about the papers that the author referenced. It is likely that they have found papers that you haven’t. You can benefit from their efforts by looking up insightful papers directly and adding those papers to your literature review process.

Contact the Researcher Directly

Sometimes, you will find a paper that you really want to read, but despite all of your efforts you have been unable to attain an actual copy. Never fear, there is always one person who has a copy of the paper and is willing to share – the researcher! Most researchers are easily found online, either through their institution webpages or their own sites and social media accounts. Usually, researchers are allowed to share copies of their work with individuals or for educational purposes within their institutions. Nobody ever asks us about our research – so be prepared! They may even offer to hop on a zoom call to discuss their work or send you three or four updated papers on the topic! Score!

Wrapping Up

I hope this post has given you some new ideas and helpful tips to help you navigate research databases a little more smoothly. When you’re ready to dive in, hop on over to The Repository. I have posted a simple walk through video of the ERIC database to help you learn to use its tools and filters quickly and easily. I also have a free eBook entitled “Writing a Great Literature Review” that will expand on some of the topics mentioned in this post. Good luck on your journey friends and let me know how I can help.


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