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Developing a Search Strategy for your Literature Review

In this digital age, we have the world at our fingertips, so much so that ‘to Google something’ has entered into common parlance to suggest that we can easily find out about anything simply by ‘Googling’ it. This has opened the floodgates to information overload – a common stumbling block researchers can encounter when first tackling a literature search. Here, we discuss some strategies you can adopt to get the most out of your search, and to ensure a high-quality literature review.

Purpose of search strategy

In simple terms, a search strategy is a means of organising your search and helps you to plumb the many sources of information for truly meaningful references. It will also help you filter out low-quality sources. This is more relevant than ever, due to the nature of most research that uses the Internet as a starting point nowadays. “Starting down a rabbit hole” only to find that your starting point was flawed is a very real risk. To continue our online analogy, think of this as a clickbait.

Both a formal and an informal process based on the type of review

It’s important to note though that having a search strategy is not necessarily a formal process, but rather a tool you can develop for yourself to help you hold yourself to a higher standard when researching a topic. However, when it comes to certain types of work, such as systematic reviews or meta-analyses, this is definitely a formal process, and will need to be outlined and justified.

We recommend: In general, it’s a good idea to keep track of why you researched a topic the way you did. In other words, always keep your research objectives in mind when doing a literature search.

Search strategy for rigorous/expert reviews

There are many ways to start researching a topic, but it can depend on how well-acquainted you are with it to begin with. If you already are an expert and are conducting a more formal analysis, it may be okay to dive right into compiling a list of important studies and publications and begin determining inclusion and exclusion criteria – basically, self-imposed rules to decide which papers are most relevant and appropriate for your work. 

Search strategy for general reviews

On the other hand, if you’re writing a more informal review, or are not up to date on the topic, a more gentle approach is to start with a few reviews on the topic, making sure that they are recent and come from a reputable source. These can be great to get you up to speed, and will generally contain a wealth of very useful references to key publications that you can use in your study. As you read more reviews, you’ll likely start seeing a pattern of publications that get cited over and over. These tend to be key papers in the field, and are worth knowing inside and out to start building from.

Staying focused on your research question

Getting overwhelmed is very common, due to the sheer size of the task, and it can present a real roadblock. The best way to deal with it is to stay focused on your question.

  • If it’s a formalised analysis, your research question should be defined at this point, and you’ll be able to filter through sources by ensuring that they apply to your question. 
  • If you are tasked with writing a more general review, you may want to specify your focus slightly by approaching it from a particular angle. For example, rather than writing about ‘Diabetes therapies’, you may decide to look at it from a more defined perspective, for instance ‘The use of diabetes therapies in adolescent patients with Type 1 diabetes’. Of course, this will depend on how much leeway you have with the topic, but it can be useful to be as specific as possible.


A literature search can be daunting, but also very enjoyable. You’ll come across papers and studies you won’t have seen before, which can lead you down a path of learning that you might not have gone down before. Just remember to stay focused and be sure to use only meaningful and high-quality sources to get the most out of your search.


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