Searching and Managing Literature

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Searching, reviewing and keeping track of literature can be a daunting and overwhelming task given the sheer number of articles and amount of data available. Using a strategic approach to finding and reading papers and comparing data will help you find and assess literature more efficiently. Having an organizational tool to archive the articles you have read will allow you to easily find specific pieces of information and references.  

The activities below will guide you to… 

  • Identify appropriate key words to conduct literature searches. 
  • Read papers more efficiently to find the information you need. 
  • Review potential methods for organizing your literature library. 

Literature Searching 

Literature searching is strategic: where and how you look for information will affect what sources you find.  

Consideration 1:

Understand the purpose of your literature search and the type of information you are looking for. This will determine the types of sources to search that most likely contain the information you are looking for. Below are some common types of sources and the different purposes they are typically useful for: 

Review articles give an overview of key themes and approaches in a research area. They are useful when exploring a new field. 

Original research articles report specific findings and research approaches. They are useful for primary data and experimental protocols, and often report cutting-edge ideas in the field. 

Protocol papers/research forums give details about specific protocols or techniques, and are used to find details of a particular experiment or to troubleshoot information. 

Textbooks establish theory and basic knowledge, and often are most useful to familiarize yourself with a field of study. 

Consideration 2:

Choose appropriate databases to search. Using multiple databases is a good idea for thorough literature searches. Some databases are multidisciplinary while others are more specialized. Google Scholar gives a large volume of information, but has limited functionality for narrowing down or sorting content. The University of Toronto has access to many scholarly databases (Web of Science, Scopus, etc.) (Resource 1), which are more useful for filtering searches to find what you need.  

Consideration 3:

Select appropriate key words: using Boolean operators (e.g. AND, OR) is very powerful for focusing and specifying literature searches. See Resources 2 and 3 for more information on Boolean Logic and other search characters.   

Suggested Activity – Key Word Searching 

Estimated time: 30 minutes  

Using synonyms or related terms can help capture more relevant literature in your searches. Refer to Resource 4 to help get started. 

  1. Create a table with ‘Concept’ as the first column heading and subsequent columns as ‘Related term’.  
  2. Choose a main idea or gap from your research area and identify a key word to describe this idea. Populate a row of the “Concept” column with this key term describing the idea. Add each related concept in its own row within the “concept” column. 
  3. Think of related terms and synonyms for the concept to populate the rest of the columns in that row. See activity examples.  
  4. Create a search stream by connecting words in columns with OR and connecting words in different rows with AND. 


Reading Literature Strategically – Find the Information You Need 

Once you have identified potential useful sources you must retrieve the information of interest. As with literature searching, literature reading is also strategic and may not require you to read a paper from start to finish. You will most likely read literature differently depending on your goals and the type of source you are using to find information; for example, you may only read methods if you are looking for a particular protocol. See Resources 5-7 for tips on reading the literature for different purposes.  


Managing Literature 

There are many ways to document and record the literature you have read. A number of electronic solutions are available that also function to insert and format citations into documents. A summary of different programs, their cost/availability to University of Toronto students, and their functionality can be found in (Resource 8). If you have not already done so, use this resource to select and download a citation manager. 

Another popular strategy is to record your literature searches (e.g. Keywords used, key papers found, purpose, summary of key findings) in a searchable document (e.g. word, excel, or OneNote) that can be reviewed at a later date and periodically updated. Programs are also emerging that “learn” the literature you read and automatically notify you of new literature that might be of interest to keep you updated (Resource 9)There is no “one way” to manage literature so you are encouraged to explore what works for your specific situation. The most important thing, however, is that you have SOME system that enables you to find and keep track of the current state of your field.  

Activity Examples

Literature Search – Key Words
Key Word ExamplesExamples of concept key word tables and some Boolean operators to join terms in one search.


Literature Searching
1 University of Toronto Engineering & Computer Science Library subject-specific guides for literature searches. Includes useful databases, citation styles, and search tips.
2 explaining Boolean logic for advanced searches (~2 min).
3 University of Toronto Engineering & Computer Science Library guide to using different search strategies such as Boolean terms.
4Library Workshop Slides Course slides to help direct keyword generation and optimize library searches, slides from the University of Toronto Engineering and Computer Science Library.
How to Read a Paper
5Tips from your peers - Reading PapersGeneral tips for reading papers from your peers.
6 Ten tips that will help you build effective reading habits that will benefit you during your degree.
7 Infographic on a strategic method of read and interpret an article.

Organizing Literature
8 University of Toronto Library’s guide to citation managers.
9, an AI-based tool to filter and prioritize feeds from different sources (indexing databases, journals etc.) to help you find relevant articles.