Using Google Scholar to refine a literature search

When starting research in a new topic it’s hard to know what language is used. The reason we start a new project is because we suspect that there is a gap in the body of knowledge. To confirm this suspicion, we need to find out what research has already been done, i.e. conduct a literature review. Google Scholar is a good place to find the language of our proposed research.

Sign in to Google Scholar and open the ‘advanced search’ form. The form is tucked away in the top left corner of the screen (click on the icon of three short lines and you’ll get the full menu). Once the form is open you’ll note that there is place to put your search words (first line), phrases (second line), and words you don’t want used in the search (fourth line).

Start with a wide search and narrow down as you learn the language of your topic, i.e. use a funnel approach. For example, I’m doing research on how people elicit support about health issues in social media so that they can continue doing their craft work despite being affected by arthritis.

Step 1: Identify the main concepts of your research. Since you don’t know much about your topic you’ll use broad terms and language that may apply in the practitioner’s world but not necessarily in the research world. For example, the main concepts of my research are ‘social media’ (a phrase, because I want ‘social media’ results, not ‘social’ and ‘media’ results), arthritis, crafting. Google Scholar gives me 1,130 results.

Step 2: Scan through the results. Look for results that are obviously not related to your research. What terms are common? For example, in my search ‘game’, ‘policy’, and several biomedical terms appear. I ignore the biomedical terms because they are different for each result. I pop ‘game’ and ‘policy’ into the advanced form’s line ‘without the words’ and search. I now have 126 results.

Step 3: Open a few of the articles that best represent the research you are planning to do. Read the abstract to check that the article fits within the scope of your planned research. Make a note of language that looks different from the terms and phrases that you used to describe your research. Make a note of the keywords that come after the abstract. Journals about health usually encourage authors to select MeSH terms for their keywords.

Step 4: Using the new terms you’ve learnt, adjust your language in the advanced search form in Google Scholar. Select the articles that best match your research question, read them and decide if they should be included in your research. Now is the time to decide if you want to expand your search with an additional concept that may have arisen from this process. If an additional concept has arisen, start at Step 1 again.

Step 5: Take your search to Medline/Pubmed, Web of Science, Scopus, and other databases where one would find literature on your research question.

If you don’t already have a subscription to an electronic bibliography/reference management tool, e.g. EndNote or RefWorks, you should sign up now. It is more important to spend your time reading articles than managing your growing collection manually!

Got forth, find good literature, and enjoy your literature search and reading!

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