23 Quick Guide to Conducting Literature Searches

A Quick Guide to Conduct Literature Searches

Step 1: Use your textbook to generate an initial list of key words and synonym- Do an initial, general background search using your textbook to create a list of key words and synonyms. Some textbooks also list references at the end of each chapter; look for recent review articles.


Step 2: Use online resources to broaden your list of key words and synonyms- Use any browser (i.e. Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari etc..) and any search engine (i.e. Google, Google Scholar, Bing, Yahoo etc..) to enter the list of key words and synonyms from your textbook search. For instance, if you Google search ecology, Canada goldenrod-  reading through the top 5-8 hits you might extract the following key words: Solidago canadensis, native North America, fire adapted, forb, rhizomatous.


Step 3: Get familiar with unfamiliar terms- Look up definitions of words and scientific terminology in your textbook glossary, dictionary.com, or en.wikipedia.org but be aware that definitions vary.


Step 4: Log into UW-Madison Library System and click on Databases

Step 5: Choose from Top 10 Databases or type in one of the highly suggested databases below

Here are four databases listed below, along with attributes which make them distinctive.

Google Scholar Web of Science 
Access: Log into UW-Madison Library System and click on Google Scholar from Top 10 Databases

About: A search engine that coalesces academic literature from a collection of other disciplines. This is a good place to start since it uses the familiar Google search engine interface but within the UW library environment.

Pros Cons
All subject areas are included such as a wide range of media, interviews, books, or reports Google Scholar isn’t curated so literature quality may vary. Since it does full-text searches, results may include resources that aren’t relevant to your search.

Access: Log into UW-Madison Library System and click on Web of Science from Top 10 Databases

About: An index of scientific articles for research and citation. As a UW – Madison you have unique access to Web of Science as it normally requires a subscription.

Pros Cons
A human curated index with citation vetted for their quality. Subjects are interdisciplinary within the sciences. Includes a cited reference search option– see helpful video and info in the ‘other techniques’ tips below.* Article content are not tagged so when searching include many variations of the desired topic to return accurate results.


PubMed Biological Abstracts
Access: Log into UW-Madison Library System and click on PubMed/Medline from Top 10 Databases

About: An online search engine which makes MEDLIFE data accessible to the public.

Pros Cons
A human curated index with citations vetted for quality. Connected to the NCBI databases used for bioinformatics and molecular biology. Subject matter focuses mainly on clinical and biomedical information.
Access: Log into UW-Madison Library System and search ‘Biological Abstracts’ from Databases

About: Biological Abstracts is a database that indexes over 4,000 journals on the broad array of biology subdisciplines including anatomy, microbiology, cell and molecular biology, physiology, and plant biology. All citations include abstracts.

Pros Cons
An index of peer reviewed published articles with abstracts specific to the biological sciences.    Only covers abstracts dating back to 1969.



*Cited Reference Search

Starting with one key article, find other resources that cited that key article.  This can be helpful when you have found a helpful source which is somewhat old, and you are looking for similar, more recent literature. Start by logging into the UW-Madison Library System and clicking on Web of Science from the Top 10 Databases. Select the Cited Reference Search tab, and enter the article’s title, then select the timespan you desire (within the last 10 years). This will return your desired search results. See this helpful video.




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Process of Science Companion: Science Communication by University of Wisconsin-Madison Biocore Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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