I am working through a tutorial about literature search, reading, and writing. It says:

Chain Search:

A chain search consists of finding suitable literature by letting one text lead you to the next, which leads to the next and so on.

  • The strength of the chain search is that it leads from one good reference to another, and you will be able to follow the development of arguments through your literature search.

  • Its weakness, however, is that you might lack references that present different understandings or raise objections to the text that started the chain.

I did not understand chain search from this. The definition says: “letting one text lead you to the next“. What does text mean here? Could you please explain chain search in easy words along with an example?

  • Please give a full citation of from where you took this quotation (preferably, provide a URL or link the text if it is online). I've never heard the term before, so citing the source would help people understand the context and give better answers. That said, it sounds like a loose, informal, non-systematic way to carry out a backward citation search, which is a well-known technique that has the same strength mentioned (and more) while mitigating the weakness mentioned.
    – Tripartio
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 7:31

1 Answer 1


This sounds like formal name for a way that I frequently end up exploring the literature.

  • Somebody points me at a relevant paper or I search and find something myself, e.g., "Xu et al., Journal of Obscurology, 2012."
  • I find the paper interesting and valuable, and notice that its conclusions depend on a couple of other papers, "Friedman et al., Obscurolytica, 2007", "Xu & Gupta, Journal of Obscurology, 2010," and go get those papers to look at.
  • I also notice that the paper cites as related work the competing approaches "White et al., Soc. Obscure, 2003" and "Garcia et al., Obscurrant, 2011", and go get those papers too.
  • Then I wonder if the paper has been cited in development of other significant works, and skimming through its citations, I find that "Gupta & Xu, Obscurolytica, 2015" and "Prokoff et al, Applications of Obscurology, 2016" look particularly interesting and go get those papers too.

I keep on repeating this process, chaining through relationships in the literature, until I feel like I've gotten a sufficient sense of the community of work linked to this particular paper.

As noted, however, this will only trace out relationships within a connected community of literature, and as you cannot reasonably search more than a few links per article on average, there is a chance to missing highly important connections. Still, it's a good starting point for non-systematic search of the literature and will generally pick up the main threads of argument within a particular community.

  • 1
    Even if this way of exploring literature at first leads to a connected community of literature, it will also help you to learn the slang of that community, which then helps to find more literature related to it on your own. (You do study a very obscure field it seems. ;-) )
    – skymningen
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 15:22

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