The purpose of this page is to give IMPDET-LE students and applicants practical tips for conducting a systematic literature search. The aim of the literature search is to support the literature review task during doctoral studies. There are several purposes for literature review (Creswell, 2009):

  1. connects the research work to the existing knowledge base
  2. relates the study to the larger ongoing dialogues in the literature
  3. provides a framework for establishing the importance of the study
  4. supports the comparison of the results with previous findings

The doctoral student should master the most important literature related to his/her research topic, even better than the supervisor(s). The role of the supervisor is to give a starting point for the literature review, but the task of the student is to go deeper into the literature.

Examples of literature review, meta-analysis and technological overview articles


Starting point

The literature search is usually done at the beginning of the studies, but the literature search might be needed again when writing the articles related to doctoral studies. Creswell (2009) recommends that the literature search should be started by identifying the keywords. It is also good to note that a proper literature search will take time. It is not completed in a day or two or even in a couple of weeks.

Please use the following questions to guide the beginning of the search:

  1. why are you doing the search?
  2. what are you exactly looking for, e.g. what are the keywords?
  3. what sources should be used?
  4. what is the time span of the literature included in the search?
  5. how can you limit the search?
  6. how to identify and select the papers that are most relevant?
  7. when I have collected "enough" data?

Note: A common argument from a student is that there is only few or even no previous literature related to the topic of the research paper or doctoral research topic. Advise: Never give this explanation! Discuss with the supervisor about the key terms and the search strategy.

Use a variety of sources

One of the most common mistakes of the literature search is that only few sources are used, which makes the results limited. It is extremely important to use a variety of different sources. Electronic databases accessible via the University library are a good way of locating research literature because you can access both recent literature and articles published several years ago. However, search functions in databases might not be very precise. In some cases, better results are achieved, for instance, by using the search functions in the websites of the scientific journals.

The following sources (e.g. mainly various databases) are very useful when conducting the literature search:

  1. UEF-Primo, https://primo.uef.f, UEF-Primo is the search service of library’s printed and electronic resources (databases, online journals, electronic books and dictionaries etc.).
  2. ACM and IEEE Electronic Databases these databases are very relevant for computer science students. Links:ACM database, IEEE database.
  3. Google Scholar,; Google scholar provides more academically relevant search results than regular Google search. However, some of the articles found by the Google scholar might not be available for free access. Also do not rely just on the the Google Scholar, but use other sources.
  4. List of most frequently used databases in UEF;
  5. Science Direct database. Address:
  6. List of Journals in Educational Technology and Computer Science Education - These journals are important sources of information for all IMPDET students, for instance, when conducting the literature review or just searching for recent research conducted in educational technology and Computer Science Education.
  7. Research articles published in the edTech research group. Sometimes you do not need to go far to find the most relevant articles. Make sure that you are aware of the previous research done in your research group. Also it is worthwhile at least to browse through the previous dissertations from the IMPDET-LE study programme;

Sometimes the literature search demands that you will go manually through some of the key journals related to your research topic. The following process can be used in this case

  1. Select the journals
  2. Decide the time period of the search (Five years, 10 years, longer?)
  3. Systematically go through every single number of the selected journals published within the time period.
  4. Based on the title, abstract, and discussion part of the papers, pick articles for later inspection
  5. When you do the literature review, you need to go through the articles in detail.

The latest research and development work in Computer Science can be found in conference articles. Some of the conference series might not be available in the electronic database. In the department library, you can find some conference proceedings (CD-ROMs and books). In some cases, it is worthwhile just to quickly browse through the index of the conference proceedings to find out research articles relevant for your information search task. For instance, via the IEEE/IEE Electronic Library Online you can search directly from the conference proceedings of certain conference series.

Wiki pages can also be helpful in the early stages of the search process. If a Wiki page is created properly it should include references to the origin of the information presented in the Wiki. By following the references you might find more valid sources. It is not encouraged to refer directly to Wiki in the thesis (except when the Wiki is extremely well written and including a lot of useful information).

What and how to search?

After the key terms and sources have been decided, the next step is to start thinking about searching strategies. Start the search with general terms and then refine continuously the focus of your search. Avoid random searchers and select carefully which keywords and terms you use in the search. Write down how you have used the search terms so that the supervisor can give you instructions on how to modify the search. Creswell (2009) recommends that the literature search should first locate about 50 reports of research in articles or books related to research on the topic of the doctoral studies.

If you are stuck, think about synonyms or change wording. It is important to use terms that are currently being used by the researchers, and not select terms that are outdated. For instance, in educational technology, the term technology-enhanced learning has been used recently to refer to the use of ICT in education or as a synonym to term educational technology.

Often it is also important to find the most important and relevant people in a field or topic. Try to find out those persons who have influenced most to the development of the field (e.g. the name of the person appears in many articles). It is not enough to stop with just a few names, but try to expand to a larger amount. It is also beneficial to identify the most relevant research centers, institutions, and research groups working with the topic relevant to your information need.

Citation search

Sometimes it is important to identify articles related to your topic that are most cited. Here you can find quick instructions on how to do a citation search.

The citation data can be found via the following two services available via UEF e-library:

Also Google Scholar provides citation numbers, but you are not able to rank the hits made by the Google Scholar according to the citation numbers.

How to expand the search results?

As noted earlier a common argument from PhD students is they can't find enough previous research articles related. Thus, it is important to learn how to expand the search results during the literature search process. A very good search strategy is to use the initial search results to find more articles related to the topic. You can expand the search results by searching the references of the articles you retrieved, determine which references are most useful, find the new articles, check their references and keep repeating the process until there are no new relevant articles to be found (Randolph, 2008).

You might also consider searching the other work done by the author(s) of the retrieved research papers. A good hint is also to look for papers published by the research group of the author. Usually the most important persons (e.g. champions) in any field are effective writers and they have most probably published several articles related to the topic of the search.

Summary of the process (Booth, 2004; Creswell, 2009)

  1. Focus your question/search need
  2. Decide on the most appropriate sources for the literature
  3. Perform a systematic search:
  4. Revise your search, as necessary, and replicate in other sources
  5. try to visualise the key literature with a visual picture by grouping the literature on the topic, that illustrate how your particular study is positioned in relation to previous reserach

Literature review

After the search part is completed, the next step is to write a literature review. The purpose of the review is analyse the results of the literature search. The main questions of the literature review are:

Practical hints for literature review

Further information

Guidelines for performing systematic literature reviews in software engineering

How to do a literature search; The Robert Gordon University

Tips for conducting a literature search

How to do a literature review - PP presentation (this one is from the field of medicine, but can be applied to any field)

How to do a literature search

Guidelines for writing a literature review

Literature review: A few tips on conducting it


Booth, A., Dixon-Woods, M. (2004). How to do a literature search. Course material. University of Leicester).

Creswell, J.W. (2009). Research Design - Qualitative, Quantitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. Sage Publications.

Randolph, J. J. (2008). Literature review guide.