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Crafting a Dissertation: The Literature Search

Now that you have answered some basic questions about your search topic, methodology, and literature review type, you can now start your literature search. Going back to the dartboard analogy, you begin at the outermost target ring. This, for me, was a broad Internet search using different search engines (Google, Yahoo, and Dogpile). As a result of this initial search, I found millions of books, articles (from various sources such as journals, trade magazines, popular magazines), presentations (both audio and video), and a variety of other pieces of information. From this broad sweep, I learned four key pieces of information that would help me in my second Internet sweep:

(1) keywords to inform my next Internet sweep;

(2) the type of academic journals with articles about my topic;

(3) names of researchers working on the topic;

(4) the names of organizations and associations related to my topic; and

(5) the kind of research conducted on the topic (e.g., methodological).

The second round search (the next outermost ring of the dart board) is another Internet sweep with two principal differences: you use Boolean search terms and you include the names of the specific journals, researchers, and organizations identified in round one. Boolean search terms are compound keywords using terms such as “and,” “or,” and “not.” This allows you to identify critical pieces of information that you might have missed had you not used Boolean search terms. This second round search allows you to collect a critical mass of articles, books, essays, etc., that will provide the basis for your next search. Specifically, you will have developed more sophisticated Boolean search terms, identify the types of articles, books, essays, studies, etc., you want to include in your literature search, and you will have seen the array of articles written about your topic. Now you are in the target circle just outside the bulls-eye. You simply need to conduct another search. This search is conducted in academic databases such as JStor, Medline, PsychInfo and ProQuest (the thesis and dissertation database). You must continue to use and refine Boolean keywords to get articles and studies more directly related to your topic.

The final “search”, the bulls-eye, is actually the application of the inclusion/exclusion criteria you identified before beginning the literature search. It is at this stage you can begin to discard items not directly related to your topic. This will result in a core of literature that directly relates to your topic. Remember, this information search is an iterative process that is done in tandem with note taking. The quality of your note taking will influence each search you conduct. Note taking will be the subject of my next post.