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2023 Finding sources


Start with your resource list

Your module resource list is a great place to start your search for information. The resource list contains books and articles recommended by your lecturers, relevant webpages and audio-visual material. You are expected to read between your taught sessions to develop your subject knowledge and the resource list is an essential tool for achieving this.

You can watch our short videos showing you all the features available on your resource lists, including creating notes and saving resources.



Searching beyond the resource list

For module assessments and independent research, it is important that you search for your own reading materials. Wider reading helps you to develop your own ideas about the topics you’ve learned about in your lectures. It is essential for planning your written assignments and revising for your assessments.

You can find books, ebooks and journal articles using Library Search and research databases. Websites will also offer purposeful and relevant sources of information, such as research papers and Government documents. It will be down to you to evaluate the sources you choose to read and include in your work. The main types of sources you will read and reference are explained below.

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Books and ebooks will give you an overview and background of key themes, concepts and theorists. Key texts will be on your resource lists and you may have self-directed reading tasks to complete for your modules.

If you can visit The Hive, it can be useful to browse the shelves to discover other texts on your topic. A shelf location will usually group together all the relevant books on a subject. For example, 300.72 on Level 3 of the library is where you’ll find the books related to research methodologies. There is a map of Level 3 on our Study Spaces and Facilities webpage.

If you'd like books in alternative formats then try our accessible texts from Bookshare.

Academic journals are an essential source of up-to-date research and literature reviews. You can browse our journal collections using Browzine, and here you can create a personal account to save journals to your own online bookshelf, and set up email alerts to be notified when new issues are published.

Articles are published in journals, and often focus on reporting a specific piece of research or synthesising the literature on a topic. Peer-reviewed journal articles are checked for accuracy, purpose and clarity by a panel of experts, meaning you are reading good quality information. You can search for journal articles using Library Search and research databases. We’ve listed specialist journal databases and subject-specific resources on our Subject Guides.

Search engines like Google will help you find publicly available information such as government documents, charities, businesses, blogs and journalism. Your Academic Liaison Librarians also recommend websites on your Subject Guide.

Google Scholar searches publishers’ websites and repositories for books and journal citations. We recommend adding LibKey Nomad to your browser to connect to full text articles with one click.



Your search strategy and keywords

Getting good grades starts with understanding what the assignment question is asking you to do. Comprehending the instruction words in the question will help you to write the right type of assignment, with the right focus, as this glossary explains.

You will usually need books and journal articles to support what you are saying in your essay. Reading relevant sources will develop your thinking and shape the discussion and arguments you want to include in your work.

You need good keywords to find relevant resources in Library Search, research databases and search engines. 



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Look at your assignment question and identify the main themes. What is the main concept or issue, and what other concepts are there which give more context? Take this topic as an example:

Discuss university students’ attitudes towards online learning.

The main theme or concept might be online learning. Other themes which give context are university students and attitudes.

To develop your themes further, try a mind map or the 3 step triangle method.

Think about how other people (authors, researchers, professionals, practitioners and the wider public) would describe or explain the concepts you have identified. Are there any alternative words or phrases that relate to those themes? This may reveal narrower (more specific) and broader (less specific) terms. Building these into your search can improve the relevance of the results.  

To take our earlier example we might consider:

  • What might students’ attitudes be and what might have influenced these attitudes? Attitudes could be positive (convenience, flexibility, recording of lectures, interactivity, synchronous and asynchronous learning, use of technologies) or negative (isolation, lack of interaction, perception of value, motivation, engagement).
  • Are there any different perspectives? For example: students, lecturers, public, parents.
  • What external factors might have influenced these attitudes? For example: Government policy, global pandemic.

What other words have the same or a related meaning (synonyms)? Who are the key authors and theorists on that topic? Are there any important or seminal works you should include, such as policy, legislation or research? Are any of the terms you have selected specific to particular settings or countries? Consideration of these factors demonstrates your awareness of the key issues in your subject.

Here are some possible synonyms and related terms for our online learning topic. Think about words which need to be kept together as a phrase for your chosen database. In most cases, double quotation marks tell a database that you need to find those words together, not separately.

“university students”, undergraduates, “higher education”

attitudes, perceptions, opinions

“online learning”, e-learning, elearning


Library Search and research databases have filters which you can apply to your search, including publication date, peer-review, discipline and subject terms. These are particularly useful if you want particular types of sources, or you are getting too many results.

For our online learning example, it may be worth considering the impact that the global pandemic has had on this topic. How will your results differ in focus prior to 2019? In Library Search you might find it useful to apply a discipline filter of Education for additional context.



If you need a framework for searching

If you need to develop your own research question for your assignment it can be useful to use a search framework such as PICO or SPIDER. These can help you develop your question, help keep your search focused and help you to select relevant literature. Which framework you use is entirely up to you and what you feel best fits your topic. However, your academic liaison librarian will be able to advise you on this.

More information about PICO, SPIDER and other frameworks may be found in the links below:

  • CASP offers a definition of the PICO Framework and compares with similar tools;
  • Book by Aveyard (2023) Doing a literature review in health and social care: a practical guide;
  • Article by Methley et al. (2014) comparing PICO, PICOS and SPIDER for qualitative systematic reviews;
  • Article by Cooke, Smith and Booth (2012) 'Beyond PICO: the SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis' (UW log in required).

Although searching frameworks are commonly used in healthcare and science subjects they may be adapted for use in other disciplines.



Using your keywords in Library Search

Library Search matches words: what you put in is what you get out. This means we need to consider all the possible keywords and phrases we can use for our topic and avoid filler words and simply asking Library Search a question.

Thinking of keywords can be tricky. Remember to give yourself plenty of time to search, make a note of any new keywords you find as you search, and be prepared to amend your search as you go.

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The more words and phrases you join together with the operator AND, the fewer results you will get, as your search is more specific.

“university students” AND attitudes AND “online learning”

Combining terms with the operator OR will broaden your search results. If you are using one box in Library Search to type your search, you will need to use brackets to separate each concept. To avoid using brackets, use the advanced search instead. You can type out each set of terms in separate rows – the more rows you use, the more specific your search becomes.  

In a single search box, your search string would look like this, with one concept represented in each set of brackets:

(“university students” OR undergraduates OR “higher education”) AND (attitudes OR perceptions OR opinions) AND (“online learning” OR e-learning OR elearning)

If you haven’t already done so, put words in double speech marks to search for a phrase: “human resource management”, “special educational needs” and “primary care” are examples. This 'sticks together' those words so they have to appear next to each other in your results.

Use filters. These are often found to the left of your search results in Library Search or a database. Restrict your search by publication date, discipline and content type.

Use the advanced search to look for words in just the title of a source or the abstract. To the left of each row there is a drop down option which defaults to ‘all fields’ – you can change this to Publication Title (for journals), Abstract or Title. Your results are likely to be more focused on your topic.

Use a looser phrase search if appropriate. This is called a proximity search. In Library Search, it looks like this:

            “university students”~3

This will find the word ‘university’ within three words of the word ‘students’. In other databases, proximity searching might look a little different. In ESBCO databases for example, you would use a NEAR operator: university N5 students. The two words will be found in any order, within five words of each other. Refer to the help and guidance in the databases themselves. 

Use OR to combine synonyms or similar words, for example: undergraduate OR "first year student". Advanced search can help with this.

Make sure you are searching in the right place. Your Academic Liaison Librarians can recommend subject-relevant research databases and websites - see your Subject Guide.



Recording and managing your search

As you search, you will find new keywords, authors and themes you may want to investigate further. Recording these can help keep you on topic.  Remembering your research focus and knowing when to stop searching is important.

Aside from the value of recordkeeping to stay focused and to organise your references, it can be a useful source of evidence for your research. You could be asked to show how you located and selected your sources for your assessments, especially with the increasing use of generative artificial intelligence to support research.

To stay on track:

  • Write down your search strategy to show how you’ve searched, where you've looked, and what you've found;
  • Use a table to record your search if you prefer;
  • Use the folder in Library Search to print and email your results;
  • Use a reference management tool such as Zotero;
  • Get search results and latest articles emailed to you by setting up alerts in databases and Browzine;
  • Set aside plenty of time - searching always takes longer than you think, and you’ll need time to read what you find;
  • Know when to stop – this may be influenced by the type and length of the assignment.