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Strategic literature searches - an introduction

Before you start searching for literature it is wise to spend some time concretizing and limiting your topic, and define which subject areas are relevant for your research question.


If, for instance, you are writing a text about democracy and religion, these are very comprehensive terms. In order to make it more manageable you might limit the topic in terms of time, place, and group. For instance:

Time: Democracy and religion, 1899-1913

Place: Democracy and religion at Agder, 1899-1913

Group: Democracy in religious organizations at Agder, 1899-1913

Each of these limitations should be justified, and this can happen in several ways. Maybe it is due to availability of sources, or specific events such as changes in law, political regimes, public reports, or natural disasters that make a particular time, place or groups particularly relevant, and might shed light on the scholarly discussion.

In order to concretize the topic you might chose some subordinate terms included in the term democracy (freedom of speech, voting rights, equality, etc.) and a more specific religious organization. For instance:

Women’s roles in the Norwegian China Mission at Agder, 1899, 1913.


When you have found a topic which is as limited and concrete as possible (this might change over time as your discover more about your topic) you could use some time thinking about which subject areas that might be relevant. If your topic is Women’s roles in the Norwegian China Mission at Agder, 1899-1913, some relevant subject areas might be:

Local history, history of organizations, political theory, sociology, gender theory, economic history, history of religion, organizational psychology, and probably many more.

To research your chosen topic in all of these subject areas will be too much. Choose one or two subject areas that could shed light on the topic in a particular way. Find out where these subject areas are located in the library, and which databases or archives that will be relevant to use.

Prepare to justify your choice of subject areas relevant to your research question. It is good to know a little bit about the other areas as well, and why you chose the ones you did.


When you have decided what kind of information you need, you need to think about where you should search for it. It might be useful to distinguish between overviews, depth, and currency.


Begin by getting an overview of the topic, central terms, important journals, important works and contributors. Use encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks in the library or online.


As a rule, most very recent research is published in academic journals. In most subject areas, some journals are considered more important than others. Around these journals there will be other journals focusing on narrower topics or perspectives. Search for research articles in academic journals.

If you find that certain journals turn up in many searches, consider searching in these journals specifically. Who are the new voices in the scholarly discussion, who are challenging the established and central perspectives?


Is your topic of inquiry relevant for current events? A few searches in newspapers and weekly popular journals might make your topic more interesting, or suggest interesting approaches.

Spend some time (often a little more than you think) finding useful keywords related to your topic. You can use these as search terms when you are searching for literature in Oria or various databases.

In order to come up with useful search terms you might have to read some of the relevant literature. It is important that you use the terminology of the research community, or else you will not be able to find what you are looking for, even if it exists somewhere.

Instead of searching the first keywords you can think of, spend some time looking for synonyms and antonyms. If one search term is democracy, write down synonyms (people’s rule) and antonyms (dictatorship) as well. Also write down overall concepts (governance) and subordinate terms (voting rights, freedom of speech). The reason for writing these down is that someone might have published research that is relevant to your topic and research question, without using the exact same terms as you have come up with.

Many like putting their search terms in a mind map when working:

Use several languages if you can in order to expand your search. Remember than wome words might have several different spellings (Secularization/Secularisation)

When you begin searching it is all about combining your search terms in different ways. This is why many create a form like this one, so they can keep track of which search terms they have already used, or add new search terms along the way.


Many are used to ‘googling’. But did you know that you can give coded commands to the search enginge in order to make it work more focused? Here are some techniques you can allpy for more efficient online searches.

None of these techniques are magical or will fix everything in a second. You have to try them as as you go, and use them to combine the search terms in different ways.


Boolean operators are simple commands you can write in your search. They make the search more efficient and work in most search engines and catalogues online.

If you have ever used an ‘Advanced search’ function, you might have noticed that the Boolean operators a included in the drop-down menu on the left next to the search box: AND, OR, and NOT.

AND: combines the two search terms and finds documents including both.

OR: Finds documents including one search term or the other. Useful for searching for synonyms.

NOT: Excludes terms that are irrelevant to the search and removes ‘noice’.



By searching whole phrases you can concentrate the search on specific formulation and terms. Do this by putting words in a sentence in quotation marks, like “national minorities”. Without quotation marks this would give us documents including the words national and minorities, and few of them would be about our topic. With quotation marks we get documents that use this specific term.


Using parantheses around certain search terms and synonyms/antonyms you can specify which combinations of the terms you are looking for. 


Truncation means shortening the search term to its word stem in order to get more hits. Adding an asterisk (*) after the search term, we command the search engine to find documents including words with that same stem. For instance, the term work* will give hits such as workforce, worker, workings, workplace, etc. You can also put the asterisk in front of the word stem: *work = overwork, teamwork, overwork, footwork, etc.

NB: Some databases or search engines use other symbols, such as question marks.


If you find a book or article that is very relevant to your topic, you can start again from this – for instance the bibliography at the end of it – and look for new keywords and references, and perform new searches with these. Look for titles of articles, names of researches, terms, and concepts.

Save the references to all articles you find before reading through each of them. If you use reference tools such as EndNote or Zotero you give yourself a strong foundation for the work that lies ahead.

The reference tools allow you to save many references at the time in your own collection or library. This means you could for example go through, read and organize your articles as soon as you have finished your searches. They also make it much easier to find the correct references and bibliography while you are writing your text.  

 Read more about EndNote here.

Read more about Zotero here.

Når du skal gå gjennom det du har funnet i litteratursøket ditt er det tid for litt kildekritikk. Kildekritikk betyr å vurdere om informasjonen du har funnet er troverdig, objektiv, nøytral og egnet til ditt prosjekt.


Først er det viktig å vurdere hva slags kilde det er du har foran deg. Hvilke type, form eller sjanger er det snakk om? En "artikkel", for eksempel, kan være flere ulike ting. Ingen av disse er automatisk "gode" eller "dårlige" kilder. Alt kommer an på hva du har tenkt å bruke dem til. 

Avisartikkel: Skrevet av journalist(er) med eller uten kompetanse på feltet. Kan vise hvilke problemstillinger som er samfunnsaktuelle.

Fagartikkel: Skrevet av fagperson(er), men ikke vurdert av andre fagpersoner. Kan gi god innføring og oversikt over forskning, men er ikke selv et bidrag på forskningsfeltet. 

Vitenskapelig artikkel: Skrevet av forsker(e) på feltet. Vurdert av andre anonyme fagpersoner minst én gang før publisering i tidsskrift med faste rutiner for fagfellevurdering. 



Når du vet hva slags type kilde du har foran deg finnes det flere kriterier du kan bruke for å vurdere om du vil bruke den i oppgaveteksten din. En kjent måte å sammenfatte disse kriteriene på er det såkalte TONE-prinsippet. TONE står for Troverdighet, Objektivitet, Nøytralitet og Egnethet.

Troverdighet handler om hvem som er opphavsperson, hvem er utgiver/formidler, hvem er eier av kilden.

Objektivitet handler om hvorvidt informasjonen i kilden stemmer med kunnskapen vi allerede har, og om det finnes særinteresser vi må være oppmerksomme på. 

Nøytralitet handler om hvor presis og oppdatert kilden er, og om den oppgir sine egne kilder. 

Egnethet handler om hvorvidt kilden egentlig gir den informasjonen du trenger, hvem som er den opprinnelige målgruppen, og om den er praktisk tilgjengelig innenfor rammene for prosjektet ditt.