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Research: Join the Conversation: What's been Said? What's left to Say?

For those beginning disciplinary research, how to join the scholarly conversation.

What's been Said? What's left to Say?

Most research questions do not exist in an information vacuum... other researchers have likely been discussing the general topic you are researching in both published and unpublished forums.  It's a good idea to do some sort of survey of what's already out there as you begin your research. 

Why?  This will help you:

  • Not duplicate effort by 'discovering' something that is already known
  • Find out what approaches have already been tried, and learn from their mistakes
  • Determine what the 'open questions' are... what area is still unknown?
  • Produce research that is publishable, that makes a new and interesting contribution to the field

Tips for conducting a literature survey

Bringing yourself up to speed on your particular area of research can have big payoff in understanding and interpreting your results, avoiding roadblocks, or finding new avenues for investigation.  Here are some tips

  1. Start locally
       Are there readings that your research advisor (or others working in your lab or research group) recommend?  Are there graduate students that have written on a similar project, where you can look at their thesis or dissertation?
  2. Get help
       Set up an individual appointment with a research librarian in your area of study.  They can help you formulate a search strategy to search the many research databases that the University Libraries subscribe to.
  3. Look for overviews
    Rather than reading everything ever printed on your general topic, it is useful to look for general overviews that summarize recent work in your field and point you to more specific publications.  These type of publications are often called Review Articles or Literature Surveys. Many of the research databases we use will allow you to limit your results to only 'review' articles.

Finding Highly-Cited Works

Another approach is to look for what papers have been cited in a lot of other published research.  If can identify these highly-cited papers, you'll be reading the work that has had the most influence on other scholars publishing in your field.

These papers may be older (since the longer a paper has been around, the more chance it has had to be cited), but they are often very important finding, techniques, or approaches that changed the direction of your field.

One database that allows you to review a list of publication in order of how highly cited they are is Web of Science.

In Web of Science, change the Sort by: dropdown from 'Relevance' to 'Citations: Highest First':


Web of Science Citation Sorting


In Google Scholar, results are arranged in an order that takes the number of times cited into account, though they aren't in perfect order from most to least number of citations.

Where to start your Literature Search

The University Libraries subscribe to many research databases in all disciplines.  For many subjects there may be one best database, for other topics (especially interdisciplinary ones), there may be several. See other boxes on this page for multi-subject databases good for most areas.

Many of our subscribed research databases can be searched in one place through our UTMOST search.  Be sure to use the limits on the left side of the results to help narrow down your search to just what you're looking for by topic, type of publication, year, etc.

Web of Science

Search Web of Science™

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Google Scholar Search

Google Scholar Search