How to Shortlist and Organise the results of your Literature Search


Once you have performed your initial literature search and are satisfied with the list of references that you have retrieved, the next step is to evaluate this list of potentially relevant papers in more detail to determine which are most pertinent to your topic of interest. 


How to shortlist your search results

Firstly, read the abstracts to rule out any papers that are not directly related to your research question or topic of interest. Even if the text of a paper contains the target search terms, the main focus of the paper may be an unrelated topic, so reading the abstracts can help rule out papers that will not ultimately be helpful to you.


Additionally, it can be helpful to briefly assess the timeliness of each of the papers retrieved by your initial search to see when they were published. Papers that were published more recently are more likely to contain important information related to your study or manuscript than those that were published earlier, especially in fields where research is progressing rapidly. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as in the case of landmark or groundbreaking papers, which are often important for their historical value. In most situations, however, the more contemporary a paper is, the more relevant it will be to the current state of the field.


Another useful strategy for shortlisting is to read relevant review papers in full and consult their reference lists carefully. If your search strategy was well-designed, then ideally you will already have retrieved many, if not all, of the papers cited in a closely related review article. Even so, it can be very valuable to read through these types of articles closely in case the authors highlight other aspects of the topic that you may have neglected to include, or cite papers you may have overlooked that could be useful for your purposes.


Finally, you may use online tools to help you further identify and shortlist papers that are relevant to your topic. For example, when you access an individual article record in PubMed, the database automatically generates two lists of related papers: those that are cited in the paper you are looking at, and those that the paper you are looking at cites. This can be an excellent way to identify closely related publications.


You could also consider using add-on tools such as the internet browser extension LazyScholar, which, among other features, provides recommendations of new and related papers you may be interested in based on the paper that you are currently viewing in your browser window.


How to save and organise your search results

Once you have curated your initial search results into a shortlist containing only the most relevant and interesting papers, you will want to organise them in a way that makes them easy to find and use when planning your project or writing your manuscript.


If you have access to a reference management tool such as Mendeley, Zotero or EndNote, this is one of the best ways to organise a collection of papers. All reference management tools can be used to record references to a collection of papers, and many also offer an option to store full texts of papers in PDF format.


You can also store downloaded papers on your computer or using a cloud service like Dropbox (which is particularly useful if you want to share a collection of papers with other users).


If you plan on storing your papers this way, we recommend developing an organisational strategy that will help you easily identify and retrieve specific papers when needed. For example, you may wish to consider doing the following:

  • Develop a file name strategy that makes it easy for you to identify a specific paper. This could include the first author’s last name, the year of publication, the journal name and perhaps one or more keywords, e.g. ‘Aunkul_2002_JAMA_glycemia’. 
  • Create an ‘index’ file that includes these file names associated with brief summaries of each paper. These summaries should ideally highlight the most important features of each paper with regards to your topic, and can contain short notes on the specific ways in which the paper relates to your research.
  • Organise all of the papers on your shortlist into subcategories or subfolders based on topic. Grouping similar papers together can make them easier to find and retrieve when needed.

If you are looking for a less manual way to store and organise your papers, consider using a tool like PaperPile, which was designed to work with Chrome and Google apps. This browser extension enables you to bookmark references while browsing, store PDFs in Google Drive and insert references into manuscripts written in Google Docs.


Another option is to use built-in database tools like Google Scholar’s ‘my library’ feature, which enables you to quickly and easily save references found during a Google Scholar search.



Shortlisting your search results and saving them in an organised manner can ensure that you are well-prepared to start designing your project or writing your paper.


Read previous (first) in series: Why and How to do a literature search



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