How to Streamline the Literature Review Process?


Jack Wan, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, explains in his article at THE Campus. He believes that ASEs (Academic Search Engines) combine the convenience and power of web-based search engines with the rigour of peer-reviewed scholarly sources. In contrast to traditional academic databases, which often sit behind a paywall, most ASEs are freely accessible and often link to full-text research articles. ASE searches return publications that are sorted by topic and significance in the field, with the most frequently cited publications appearing higher in the list by default. Researchers can strategically use ASEs to compile an expansive bibliography and streamline the literature review process.

What is the best academic search engine for your needs?

ASEs with a broad multidisciplinary focus will naturally have the biggest database of sources, and Google Scholar has traditionally been the leader on this front. Other ASEs are all playing catch-up, but Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE)Semantic Scholar and Refseek have all expanded the number of documents hosted within their databases. To generate metadata for millions of sources, Google Scholar harnesses the ubiquity of Google’s web-crawling algorithm, while Semantic Scholar uses AI-driven techniques. The proprietary nature of these tools can limit transparency and user control, and the iterative nature of these tools can compromise search reproducibility. In fact, even consecutive queries using identical search terms in Google Scholar may yield inconsistent results. In contrast, BASE uses an internationally standardised protocol for harvesting metadata while disclosing their list of content providers, and may be better suited for meta-analyses or systematic literature reviews.

The best approach may still be to pair an ASE with a more traditional academic database (such as Web of Science or Scopus) along with databases specifically tailored for your discipline (ERICSSRNPubmedCiteseerX).

Top search tips

Regardless of which ASE you choose, as a researcher, you need to use a consistent approach when planning a search.

  • Summarise your topic or research questions into one or two sentences.
  • Underline keywords in your topic and list their synonyms as alternate search terms.
  • Search using different combinations of keywords, and assess if there are too many or too few relevant results.
  • Sort the results by publication time frame and citation counts, and save any relevant articles to a personalised reading list.
  • Use the “cited by” or “related articles” functionality of ASEs to expand the scope of your key references.

A common search mistake is not incorporating Boolean operators into your search strategy. Google Scholar, for example, uses the following Boolean operators:

  • AND limits results by only returning articles that are relevant to all the search terms (for example, learning AND teachers)
  • OR expands your results by returning articles relevant to either of the search terms (for example, learning OR teachers)
  • The minus sign (-) limits results by excluding keywords (so, learning -teachers)
  • -site excludes results from a website (teachers
  • ~ expands your results by including synonyms for the key term in the search (~teachers)
  • “” limits your results by only showing articles with the exact phrasing (“professional learning for teachers”).