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The never ending literature search

July 13, 2010

I’ve mentioned it before: I like searching for information.  I like it so much, that sometimes I just keep going beyond the point where a rational person would stop and say “I have what I need.”

There is a lot of advice about conducting a literature search.  In fact, it is my job to give a lot of advice about how to conduct a literature search.  Much of this advice focuses on the literature search as a cycle, where you often need to return to earlier steps, like this image from the Workshop on the Information Search Process for Research (From the University of Calgary):

Information Search ProfcessBut there is rarely any advice about that last step, “Search Closure.”  How do I know when I’m done searching?

Perhaps many librarians have this problem, but it’s been hitting home recently as I try to manage several publication projects.  I’m rarely convinced that I found everything I need.

This can manifest itself in two ways.

First, the literature on the topic can be really extensive.  Have I actually found the most relevant papers?  Do I have anything to add to an already large body of literature?  At some point, I need to trust my own skills and say that I have found a sufficient amount of information for my needs.  I need to (perhaps repeatedly) tell myself that I probably don’t need to track down every single paper on the topic.

Second, I may not find much of anything.  Am I using the correct search terms?  Should I try other databases/search engines?  Is it really possible that I’m doing something that hasn’t been done before?  This is where I start asking colleagues for advice.  What keywords would you use?  Have you heard of anything like this before?  And at some point, I need to trust my own skills and examine the possibility that there just might not be anything published on my topic.

Of course, the never ending literature search is just one more excuse to put off the harder stuff: writing the actual paper.  (Perhaps writing this blog post about the never ending literature search is another excuse to put off writing the actual paper!)


From → writing

One Comment
  1. N.Crossfield permalink

    Hi, Bonnie. I’m a bit late checking blog postings, but this one hit a chord. I work in a medical library and also often wonder when I should STOP searching on a topic. My rule of thumb seems to be, once I have done the best job I can in the time available, to call it quits when I have found a couple good and current topic reviews that will lead a researcher deeper into the literature if he or she wishes to go there, have begun to see key articles appear over and over again no matter which angle I use when searching, have backtracked through the references of several key articles to see what those authors cited, and have checked for a few current articles that have in turn cited the good ones that I have already found. The old 80/20 rule seems to apply to literature searching, too, but it is hard to let economics and time management rein in one’s curiosity while one is experiencing the thrill of the chase. 🙂

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