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Finding sources

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What do you want to find out?

Whether you’ve been given a research question by your tutor, or you’ve come up with your own topic, you’ll need to:

  1. Understand what you are going to do. What does it mean to discuss, critically evaluate, justify or compare? The University of Leicester has created a useful list of terms you might find in research questions and explains what they mean.
  2. Pick out the central concepts in the question. This will help you to list or map out words and phrases you can use to search for sources of information. You will also start to think around those concepts using your own knowledge about the subject, and identify alternative words with a similar meaning (synonyms) and broader or narrower terms which might be relevant. For example:






Other examples of topic definition are available. We like Oxford Brookes’ 'Defining your topic' page, and the University of Leicester’s writing essays study guide. There’s a more visual example using mind mapping in part 6 of this online tutorial from the University of Leicester.

Take a look at the University of Worcester's Institute of Health and Society study skills pages. The literature searching page offers some tips on how to do a literature search, with some videos of tutors and students talking about their top tips and experiences.

Where are you going to look?

There is a huge amount of information available to you online, including ebooks, journal articles, reports, statistics and conference papers. Not all of these sources can be accessed through Google. Internet search engines like Google are great for finding information on websites, but for academic research and publications you need to search databases and journal collections which the University subscribes to for students and staff.

We have our own search engine which we call Library Search. You can use it to ‘google’ our Hive collection of books, DVD and materials, ebook collections, and the majority of our databases and journal collections in one search. In the box at the bottom of this page, we’ll tell you more about these different sources and where you can find them.

A good starting point for a search is your module Resource List, where your tutors will recommend texts and articles to introduce you to a subject or topic. Use this to locate the relevant section in the library, and to get an idea of the sorts of authors, titles and journals you might need to look for. 


How are you going to search?

Even though there are a number of different places to look for information, the methods you use to search those places are very similar. Google, Library Search and research databases all rely on words and phrases – these might be concepts from your research topic, author names or titles. Beyond that, you can usually narrow results by date, type of source, and subject (or discipline). You can also combine your search terms in specific ways to broaden or narrow your search: 

Keeping a search record

Searching for literature can be time consuming, and you might feel as if you've spent a long time looking but not found much of relevance to your topic. This can be very frustrating when time is short; never underestimate the time it takes to do a thorough search, not to mention reading, noting, planning and writing! It is not good practice to write your essay first then look for references. Your reading should inform your thinking and understanding, and you use your notes from this reading to plan and shape your writing.

It can be useful to keep a record of your search, so you know how you've searched, where you've looked, and what you've found. As you search you will find new keywords for your topic that you hadn't thought of before, and new authors and topics that you may want to investigate further. Remembering your research focus and knowing when to stop searching is important. 

Read this short guide which gives you lots of tips on how and where to search, and an example search record.

Download a blank search record to use: template.

Books, ebooks, journals and grey literature

Finding sources

Academic textbooks are excellent for introductions and overviews of a topic. At the bottom of the page we've included our 'Library Services Bitesize' YouTube playlist, which includes videos explaining how to find library books and your Resource Lists, and renewing and reserving library items. 

Search: Using Library Search, you can search for books, using relevant words, phrases, titles or author names (there’s an advanced search option if you want to be more specific). If you need some help getting started, you should use your Resource List to find books (and other sources) which have been recommended by your tutors. 

Select: When you find a relevant book in the library, look at the other books on the same shelf as they might be useful. Read the contents page, the back page and dip into the index. You want to know whether the book is accessible and relevant to you, and which sections are worth reading before you borrow it.

Borrow: While we’re on the subject of borrowing… don’t forget to renew your books if you want to keep them for longer, and return them on time, especially if someone else has reserved the books.

Beyond: Did you know that we can help you to access other libraries too? If there’s a book you want but we don’t have it, you might be able to request a copy from another library. You should also check to see whether you can use the SCONUL Access scheme to visit a university library closer to you, if this is convenient.

At the bottom of the box we've added our 'all about ebooks' YouTube playlist, where you can find out how to use Library Search to find ebooks (and other sources), and learn more about the features of ebooks.

Many academic textbooks are available to read online. We provide ebooks through a number of suppliers, including:

  • Dawson Era (our main supplier of individual titles)
  • My iLibrary 
  • Academic Complete 
  • We have a number of subject-specific ebook collections too, and you’ll find details about these on your subject guide.

It is useful to understand how these different suppliers provide ebooks, so you can plan how you will access and read them. For the purposes of referencing, we advise using the details on the front cover and the copyright page inside the actual ebook. On these pages you will find the authors, year of publication, full title, edition, place of publication and publisher. The information given on the website where the ebook is held is not always accurate. 

You can find ebooks using Library Search as follows:

  1. Click the Ebooks tab
  2. Type keywords, title or author and search 
  3. Click the ‘full text online’ link at the bottom of any ebook reference
  4. Log in and read the book online.

You may have the option to download the ebook for a limited period of time, if the ebook publisher and the supplier have enabled this. You will have access to the whole book, so use the contents and index to go to relevant sections of the ebook instead of flicking through page by page. You may also be able to add notes and search inside the book. These options are normally available on the left of the main reading area, with the contents listed.

At the bottom of the page we've shared our 'all about academic journals' YouTube playlist, in which we show you what a journal looks like and how to find articles in journals.

Academic journals are an essential source of current research, literature reviews, and academic book reviews. Many academic journals are peer-reviewed, which means that articles submitted by authors and researchers are checked for accuracy, purpose and clarity by a panel of experts. They may be redrafted and reviewed again before they are eventually published.

Important: As a student you should get to know the key journals in your subject, keep up to date with the latest issues of those journals, and reference journal articles in your work.

Academic journals are rarely available online without a subscription (with the exception of open access journals). These subscriptions can be very expensive. The university subscribes to thousands of journals through publishers and research databases, and these are made available to staff and students of the University through your university username and password. You cannot go directly to a publisher’s website and log in to access a journal. You have to go through Library Search, or the database and journal links we provide on our website, for your log in to work.

Your Academic Liaison Librarians recommend databases on their subject guides, and one of our main roles is to teach students how to find the best journals for their subject! 

Grey literature is a term which describes those publications which are not produced commercially or through publishers. They might include research papers and reports from organisations, statutory materials and statistics from Government departments, and conference papers.

Many of these sources are found freely on the web, and often using a search engine like Google. These sources are often in PDF format and can be downloaded. Your Academic Liaison Librarians will also recommend relevant, quality websites on your subject guide.

Useful techniques for searching Google include:

  • Phrase searching: just like Library Search and databases, you can use double quotation marks to specify a phrase for Google to find e.g. “child obesity”
  • Search tools: once you’ve done your search, click the Search Tools button above your results. You will see options to specify UK websites only, and to restrict the ‘publication’ date of the webpages found.
  • Domain searching: after your keywords or phrases, specify what site Google should look at. For example, do you want it to find results from academic organisations (, or UK Government departments (
  • Google Scholar: use this version of Google to look for book citations and journal articles. It is possible to locate articles which the University subscribes, by using the library links setting in Scholar