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Literature Reviews: How & where to search

This guide is an introduction to the Literature Review process - including its purpose and strategies, guidelines and resources to help you get started

The research question

A well-focused research question helps guide your research, enables construction of a clear argument and will summarise the main topic of your research.  

According to Foss and Waters, a well-defined research question has six properties:

Theoretical Construct Identifies the theoretical construct/s you want to learn more about.
Recognisability Assists you to use terminology which is recognisable in the field of expertise
Transcends the Data Transcends the data used to conduct the research.
Significance Draws attention to the significance of the research.
Capacity to Surprise Has the capacity to surprise the researcher as they research.
Robust Encourages a complex answer (i.e., not a 'yes' or 'no' response).

Visit the Researcher Skills Toolkit for more information on developing a research question including examples. 

Search strategy

If all concepts are not identified, your search strategy may not be correct and the literature identified may not address your research.  

For example, if your research topic is:

"The role of social media for promoting participation in sport by refugees living in rural areas" 

Four concepts are included in this research question: 

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3 Concept 4
social media sport refugee rural areas

Several frameworks are available that assist when developing a search strategy associated with the key concepts in a research question.

Visit the Researcher Skills Toolkit for more information on search strategies. 

Keeping track of search terms 

Returning to the example research topic :

The role of social media for promoting participation in sport by refugees living in rural areas

Synonyms and related terms which may be identified as useful for this research question could include the following:

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3 Concept 4
social media sport refugee rural area

social media 

social platform 

social network 





Tik Tok 








asylum seeker 

displaced person 


undocumented immigrant 

illegal immigrant 

forced migrant 

humanitarian entrant 




New terms and concepts can be added when found during the literature search.

Use the search planning form or something similar to document your key concepts, with any synonyms and related terms.

Visit the Researcher Skills Toolkit for more information on keeping track of your results. 

Various techniques such as truncation, phrase and proximity searching, nesting, Boolean operators and wildcards, can help to maximise the effectiveness of search strategies. These techniques are explained below.

When used together the techniques and strategies included in this section will enhance the potential and scope of results in your research topic.

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Truncation is used to search alternate endings of words.  

Many databases use the asterisk (*) as the truncation symbol. 

An asterisk is inserted at the point in the word where alternate endings exist and need to be identified. 

Child* will retrieve: 

  • Child /Childs/Childless

  • Children/Children's

  • Childish/Childhood/Childlike  

  • Childbearing

  • Childproof 

  • Childcare 

All databases and search tools allow truncation, but the symbols used may vary, so it is best to check the database help for details. 

Do not insert the truncation symbol too early in a term as it may retrieve large numbers of irrelevant records.  

Be mindful when using truncation. 

For example, if your research focusses on identifying the age group 5-12 years it may be best to search using the terms ‘child’ or ‘children’ rather than truncating child* 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Phrase searching allows users to search for literature containing a phrase rather than containing a set of keywords in any order.   

In most databases the phrase needs to be enclosed within double quotation marks.  

Phrase searching can be combined with truncation in some databases. Always check database search help to be sure.

“social network*” 

“asylum seeker*” 

"high school"

Sometimes it is unclear whether quotation marks are needed and using them can limit a search too much.  

For this reason, it is a good idea to experiment by conducting searches with and without them. 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Proximity operators can be used to further refine and focus searches by defining how close search terms must appear to each other in database records, and in some cases, in what order. 


In  ProQuest databases: school N/3 subject

  • retrieves documents with the two search terms within 3 words of each other

In OVID databases: (infant* or child*) ADJ3 (health* or mortality) 

  • Retrieves records which include infant or child within 3 words of either health or mortality.


Proximity operators may vary between database and may include N/, W, NEAR, ADJ, FREQ.

Check the database help section for more details 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Nesting means using parentheses ( ) to specify the order in which a search should be processed.  

Search terms within parentheses will be searched first and then combined with the search terms outside the parentheses. 


“avian flu” AND (transmission OR infection) 

(ranking OR quality) AND institution 


Useful for more comprehensive searching.

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Boolean operators can assist to improve search results by allowing you to include multiple words and concepts. 

Three Boolean operators are frequently used: 

  • OR – broadens your search, any of the search terms can be present 

  • AND – reduces your search, all search terms must be present in the search results 

  • NOT – reduces the number of search results by excluding words from a search  


(“social network*” OR “social platform*” OR “social media” OR Twitter OR Facebook) 


(children AND warts) 


Intelligence NOT (artificial or emotional) 


Ensure you use the correct Boolean operator when combining sets in searches. 

Some databases require Boolean operators to appear in capital letters – check for database help to confirm correct use. 

“NOT” must be used carefully, as it may exclude records that are relevant to the research topic. 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Wildcard operators are sometimes called internal truncation. They may be inserted at the point in a word where there is variation in spelling, taking the place of an unknown letter or set of letters. 

Wildcards are useful for searching when a word has different spelling (American, British), or word forms. 

Many databases use the question mark (?) as the truncation symbol. 

In the ProQuest and OVID databases: 

  • colo?r will retrieve either color or colour 

  • wom?n will retrieve woman or women 

  • chlori?e will retrieve chlorine or chloride 

Some databases and search tools may not provide the ability to search using wildcard operators.  

Wildcard symbols may vary between databases so it is best to check the database help for details. 

Using the research question:

The role of social media for promoting participation in sport by refugees living in rural areas

The concept terms and their synonyms can be truncated and phrases identified. 

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3 Concept 4
Social media sport refugee rural area

"social media"

"social platform* "

"social network*" 





Tik Tok 









“asylum seeker*” 

“displaced person*” 


“undocumented immigrant*” 

“illegal immigrant*” 

“forced migrant*” 

“humanitarian entrant*”




These terms and concepts can now be incorporated into any search strategy associated with the research question used as our example.

Visit the Researcher Skills Toolkit for more information on search techniques.

Database searching

Journal databases are searchable collections of information. Databases have been developed to provide a structured way to search for scholarly information. They are the best place to search for scholarly literature. Databases can be subject-specific or multidisciplinary and are updated regularly, usually daily or weekly. 

The University of Newcastle Library subscribes to hundreds of databases which can be freely accessed in the following ways:  

  • The A-Z Database list contains a complete list of the databases that you can access through the library.  
  • Subject Resource Guides have been created by the library as collections of relevant resources by subject area. They contain links to key library databases in each discipline, and other important resources.

Some information, such as government documents, reports, and other grey literature, are not indexed in scholarly databases, so you will need to expand your search online.  

Although grey literature is not usually peer-reviewed, it may still be a reliable source of information for your research topic. 

Use the Grey Literature Library Guide to identify government websites, grey literature repositories, databases, and other resources. 

Using statistics in your review can strengthen your argument by providing supporting evidence for your work.

To find statistics, identify who might have collected the statistics you are looking for (e.g. government departments, companies, organisations, etc) and search their web pages for relevant data and publications.

Use the Statistics guide to find key sources of Australian and international statistics and data..

Theses and dissertations can be a valuable source of information for research.

Use our Theses and Dissertations guide to find theses by University of Newcastle graduates, and others completed in Australia and internationally.