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The search process

Searching for academic source material is a circular process

Searching for academic source material is a process that develops in the course of your writing. A process with different phases and sub-goals. We cannot give you a one-size-fits-all template for this process: there is too much variation in the requirements of different subjects and academic assignments. But we can give you a rough outline of a model with different phases that works well in cases where you are involved in coming up with a research question for your assignment. You can use these phases to help guide your searches for academic source material. 

Phase 1: Exploration/inspiration

The first phase of your search is about exploring and getting inspiration. This is when you get a sense of what particular topics within your field of study your assignment relates to.    

Relevant concepts Identify relevant concepts that you can use as keywords when searching for source materials.  
Use your insight into your field of study You need a solid understanding of your field to base your search on: core concepts, central research traditions, historical foundations, useful methods or something else entirely.    
A lot of literature If there is a lot of literature about your field/topic, you must be prepared to narrow your search to avoid being overwhelmed by literature/information.  
Lack of literature If there is not a lot of literature about your field/topic, you will need to broaden your search and make use of sources and information that only addresses your topic partially or indirectly. In this situation, reference works or anthologies can be relevant sources: they can provide you with a short summary of the established knowledge about a topic written by reputable researchers. Some reference works also have reference lists, which allows you to get a quick overview of the central literature on your topic. However, such lists are often not completely up-to-date, and you will need to find more recent sources yourself.    
Find the latest research Another approach is to search for the very latest research articles on your topic. This way, you can quickly get up to speed on the latest advances. You may even be lucky enough to find articles that provide you with a review of the existing research in the field.   
Check out other people’s reference lists Check out other people’s reference lists Other people’s up-to-date reference lists can also be very useful, because they can lead you right to the core texts on your topic.  
Collect good keywords Make a note of any useful concepts, keywords and search terms you come across so you can use them in your searches. They might lead you to even more useful literature/information. Find out more about using good keywords here

Phase 2: Narrowing/delimiting your scope

In this phase, your goal is to search for source material in a systematic way.  

  • Define your keywords 

  • Find relevant resources /sources to search in 

  • Decide on your search strategy – consider what techniques you will use to find relevant information using resources/sources you have selected 

  • Carry out your searches 

Get help with techniques and methods for searching for academic source material or read more about search techniques on the AU Library website

Define your keywords
Identify and define the keywords you will base your searches on. The process of identifying potential relevant keywords will help you search more efficiently and ensure a good balance between breadth and relevance in your search results. You might want to categorise and group your keywords to reflect the different aspects of your topic. 
Find relevant resources
Find relevant resources/sources to search . AU Library gives you access to an enormous amount of different resources, and it can be challenging to figure out which resources are relevant to your project and your research question. Starting your search in the library’s subject guides can be a good idea.  
Think about your search techniques

Think about what search techniques are most relevant for you before consulting your chosen resources/sources. This will allow you to take a systematic approach to your research.  

You may also want to consider using a referencing tool so you can make a note of the sources you use, so that you can refer to them in your paper.  

Carry out your searches

Carry out your searches. 

At some point, you need to stop searching for academic source material. In a lot of courses, there is a strong emphasis on thoroughness and using the literature/information you find in your paper. And quality usually takes time. If this applies to you and the paper you are writing, it is important to be aware of it. For example, this means you should stop searching for new sources well in advance of your deadline, that you should make sure you can get the materials you are interested in and that you have time to actually read and use the literature/information. 

Phase 3: Evaluation/precision

At this stage, you will have identified a number of sources that appear relevant to your assignment. Now you should consider: 

  • What sources have you found? Be critical 

  • Who is behind what you have found? 

  • Have you found what you expected? 

Evaluate your search results. It is possible that you have hit the nail on the head with the references you have found, and that they’re precisely the kind of material you were looking for. But you should also consider: 

  • Are your sources balanced in relation to your overall goals – both in relation to your own ambitions and the formal requirements for the assignment? 

  • Have you read enough or more than enough to answer your research question? If the answer is yes, then it is probably time to stop searching for more sources. If the answer is no and you have the feeling that there might be more sources you have not found, then you need to repeat the search process.  

You may find that your need for literature/information changes after you have started working on your assignment. Sometimes you need to gain some insight into a topic before you are able to narrow your search and locate the right sources. When you are doing research for a large assignment, you will often find that you need to repeat all or part of the search process several times: Searching for academic source material can be a circular process. 


Documenting your searches  

In some fields and for some kinds of assignments, it is expected that students describe and /or reflect on their approach to searching for source literature and the results of their searches. Make sure you know what is expected of you in the context of your degree programme, the course and the specific assignment.  


Get help with the process

If you would like to improve your search skills, the library can help. You can get advice and guidance from AU Library, both in person and online. The library also offers lots of courses, including lots of open courses you can sign up for.