I'm about to begin my master's research, and I'm in the process of formulating my research question. Therefore, I am searching for papers about the same topic to make sure that what I am planning to do has not been done before (at least not the way I am planning to do it), but so far I cannot find such papers.

How can I make sure that I've searched enough and that I am not missing anything obvious? I have chosen characteristic keywords from my topic and ran them in Google and Google scholar. Should I perform the same search in other places, or should that suffice?

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    do a search with something other than google - why would you assume that google is exhaustive?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 7:25
  • That's exactly what I asked. I'm used to Google, like anyone else, but for scientific searches I figured I should use other databases, only wasn't sure which would be best.
    – Don_S
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 8:08
  • Find as many others as you can, then use them or just the “best” ones...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 8:10
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    @tom are you implying that every paper, article, journal entry every written or published is available on google?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 8:42
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    What work/paper is your proposed work based on? Looking at which papers cited those papers will give you a good idea of how the field has progressed and whether your proposed work is original or not. Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 17:57

3 Answers 3


Literature search is a skill like data analysis or writing. You need to learn the basics from an expert, find a good sample and dissect it, then try it on your own. Simply entering terms into Google is not enough or won't get you very far.

I suggest that you

  1. spend time with an information specialist in the library to learn about constructing answerable questions and learning the basics of searching

  2. learn about the basic databases used in your field and the proper way to search them through your subject librarian also at the library

  3. locate several systematic reviews in your field and dissect their methods. Pay special attention to the databases and search terms they used.

  4. ask your supervisor and peers for advice about the databases that they've used.

I hope that you develop a new-found respect for librarians in the end. They are a godsend.

Good luck!

  • +1 for the best "teach a man to fish" answer.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 15:08
  • Research librarians are absolutely worth their weight in gold - Google does not hold a candle to one.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 22:05

I give you examples from Chemistry.

-Web of Science

-Scopus/Science Direct/Springer/Taylor & Francis etc.

-CAS Sci-Finder


Web of science is generally known for refined, more quality papers. Surely not an exhaustive database, in that sense, but it is always a good start to manage a review, as we are humans and can't read 400 articless in a day. In short, reading review papers in web of science and looking the titles of research paper will give you quite sufficient idea about the clusters of research in that field.

-Scopus etc. databases give many papers, especially downloadable papers in case your institute has a subscription, but even not so you will still see the abstract and have an idea of what they are doing. Watch out for their bias, btw, whatever sorting option you have done they will still climb some papers above the others on the list.

-Science finder is, the real exhaustive database. You can even find many conference proceedings you will never ever have a chance to see in other places. I, for instance, once looked for the oxidative degradation of HBCD chemical, which was said to be not studied yet at that time. I have found 2-3 papers/conferences there about its advanced oxidation degradation. The best thing about this database, for chemists of course, drawing the molecule and find papers related to that molecule, instead of trying different names of the compounds.

-Scholar.google is not like a google, it is more structured, you can export citations and see many other details about papers. In many ways, you can even find it much better than other databases.

Keywords are a good start yet you can overlook many papers with that tactic. You should be more concerned about the journals in your field, much easier and systematic review, as they even do it in papers nowadays like " we have selected 51 journals and for last 10 years, reviewed such and such...". Otherwise, you will really overlook the papers did exactly what you are up to but just used other words than you might expect.

This is what it looks like, be systematic and recognize your field's journals. Things will be straightforward, then.


Search your institution's library catalogue. Many/most institutions will have online access to journals and publications that are not open-access and may not be well-indexed in Google (maybe unlikely but still possible).

Depending on your field, search arxiv.org.

Search related topics. If you find related papers, or papers which could be precursors to your topic, you can then search for papers that cite those precursor papers.

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    Even better. If you have access to an academic library, ask the research librarian. if such a position exists (it probably does). These folks will likely have a conversation with you about your real needs and they normally have access to a lot of places you won't think to look. Librarians are information professionals, not book cataloguers.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 14:43

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