I moved straight into the professional world after my bachelor's degree, and have no experience with formal research of any sort. Recently, however, my university has granted alumni access to a large portion of its collection of research journal subscriptions. I would like to leverage this access to improve my understanding of my field--and of other fields I explore in the future as a hobbyist.

But I do not even know how to search for information relevant to my interests. For example, if I am interested in looking into research done on the relationship between the brain's ability to focus on one task for a given length of time and efficacy of study methods, the first thing I think of is 'attention span,' but this appears to yield articles in primary education journals outlining techniques for managing children with short attention spans. If I try 'focus,' I end up chiefly with results discussing the practice of selecting a focus for one's undergraduate degree. If I try 'concentration,' I end up with myriad articles describing the impacts of either chemical concentrations or demographic concentrations on psychological health and development. None of these things are close to what I am actually searching for, even after filtering the results for the fields I thought would be obvious choices--Education and Psychology.

After sniffing around on my own, a widespread assumption in the existing advice I've found is that the article-seeker will be an academic well-versed in the jargon of their field, or who are looking to expand out from a paper they've already found or been directed to by someone knowledgeable. Is there a consistent methodology for a non-academic to gain a foothold of understanding on a given topic--as with my 'attention spans and study methods' example--that allows one to branch out from there?

  • 5
    In some cases hunting around on Wikipedia can yield key-words and key-phrases. I'd wager that the disconnect is even larger, though, because papers are written in a context that is usually not spelled out at all. That is, most papers are written for "experts": whatever that means exactly, it certainly includes primarily people who share the context (not just vocabulary and charged senses of words). But, still, sometimes Wikipedia at least includes some of the semantics and syntax... Feb 14, 2016 at 22:24
  • The standards to which your literature search will be held are the same, regardless if you are an academic or independent. So the techniques used by one and the other will be the same tried and true ones. Sure, without ready access to a well-stocked library (and network access to the copious literature published by professional organizations and major publishers) things are harder. Look for ways to get "visitor" status or such at a local college, or access at work, for starters.
    – vonbrand
    Feb 15, 2016 at 18:26

4 Answers 4


It can look daunting but don't be frustrated so quickly. Even academics are intimidated by the vastness of the system as well. The game's rule is to dive into the right partition of the literature to maximize the chance of finding what you want.

Before you start, browse the library website of your school for online resources first. Most institutes have online tutorial guiding students how to use different services. There could already be a workshop or video about what you want to learn.

One particular thing we need to know is that unlike public library which usually has one big catalog, academic literature is largely cataloged by their field of study. For instance, if we are to look for medical articles, PubMed would be a good starting database. For psychology, PsycINFO would be a good database. These databases group all related journals inside, and this can filter out a lot of unrelated articles.

Once the right database has been identified. Learn more about it by signing up for an account. Usually each of these databases has a tutorial and also an alert service for newly released articles. For example, this article talks about how to more effectively search PsycINFO.

For PubMed we have something called MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) which guides the use of keyword. For Psychology an equivalence is the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms. You can try access to this through your school and check out the terms that may interest you.

False positive results always appear. That's why you should also learn the Boolean operators. They can help you refine your search. For instance, using your attention span example, you can try: "attention span" and "adult" or "attention span" not "educat*" (* is usually a wild card, it's to capture any words starting with educat~, including educate, education, educator(s), educational, etc.)

To look for some starting keywords, I will try Google Scholar and Wikipedia. Once you have some seeds, it should not be a problem to snowball for more.

Also, document your search processes. If you ever want to come back to this search, with all your keywords and database written down it'd be a lot easier. Lastly, since most databases allow us to look inside a particular journal, asking field experts for some recommended journal titles will also help you narrow down the search very quickly.

Remember this is not a one-shot activity. For most of the academics searching for information is an iterative process. So, spend some time to play with the search functions, and don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Disclaimer: I am not a psychology expert but since OP uses psychology as examples I just rolled with it. If I wrote anything that's outrageous in this answer please feel free to post a comment, I'll promptly correct them.


In addition to Penguin_Knight's answer, I have found three types of papers to be particularly useful:

  1. Foundation papers. Most fields and subfields have foundation papers that established the basics of the field, including terminology. Those papers tend to be very highly cited. They are often among the oldest cited in a somewhat relevant article. Once you find a foundation paper you can find other papers on the topic by looking for papers that cite it.
  2. Survey papers. People write papers that survey the state of a field of study. Those are extremely useful, because they tell you a bit about each paper they mention.
  3. PhD dissertations. One of the agendas of a student writing their dissertation is convincing a committee that the student has done a competent literature search for material related to their dissertation research. Each dissertation's "Related Work" section is a small survey paper.
  • +1. I find survey papers to be a better starting point than foundation papers. A foundation paper is the first time X has ever been stated (well, published really), and as such often tends to be rougher than necessary, while by the time it makes it to a survey paper, it's much more refined and often simplified. An excellent example is Bayes theorem: it was first a 48 page rambling manuscript. It is now an extremely simple 4 variable equation we teach to stats 101 students.
    – Cliff AB
    Feb 16, 2016 at 5:10
  • @CliffAB Just to clarify, I rarely use foundation papers directly. I look through their "referenced by" lists for recent papers with interesting abstracts. Feb 16, 2016 at 6:51

As comments indicated, Wikipedia articles are a good starting point, not only because they let you find relevant keywords. Good Wikipedia articles provide links to sources, so you might start reading through the journal articles that are referenced in the Wikipedia article. Next, those articles will reference other works, so you'll add those to your reading list.

At this point, you'll have enough articles to read, make notes and classify. Make notes and group articles to improve your retention.

In other words, encyclopedia articles work as a tertiary source. They provide a broad context and let you find relevant secondary sources.


I don't think there's such a thing as a "literature search methodology for non-academics" as distinct from a methodology for academics. The "literature" you refer to here is academic literature; thus, meaningfully searching and reading it requires an academic context.

That said, I can try to answer a question that you did not quite ask, but that might be more relevant to you: How can a non-academic get started with searching academic literature?

I would suggest that if you want to get started quickly and yet effectively, the librarian is your friend. Librarians are specifically trained in conducting literature searches and in helping and educating people to conduct their own literature searches.

Specifically, I recommend that you book an appointment with a university librarian at a nearby university. (Librarians at a public library might not have the skills you need--I don't know.) I would guess that many university librarians would be happy to make an appointment with you--such one-on-one consultations are usually part of their job; however, I can't guarantee that the university library you might happen to contact does consultations for members of the general public. Once you have an appointment booked, you should send an e-mail in advance to the librarian describing in as much detail as possible what exactly you are searching for. When I've done this in the past, the librarian usually has identified most of the necessary information before the meeting. Make it clear that you are new to literature searching and want general starting tips.

In addition to a library consultation, I recommend that you read up on literature searching. Two of the best sources I know for this are dedicated chapters in books:

  • Petticrew, M., & Roberts, H. (2006). Systematic reviews in the social sciences: A practical guide. Blackwell Pub. Chapter 4: How to find studies: the literature search.
  • Ridley, D. (2012). The literature review: a step-by-step guide for students. London: Sage Publications Ltd. Chapter 3: Sources of Information and Conducting Searches

Again, a librarian could help you get these: if a nearby library doesn't have these books, you could try to request them by interlibrary loan. The librarian could give you other options.

  • It can depend very much on the field, I would think. My field is statistics; there are papers about applying methods and developing methods. Non-academic statisticians are much more likely to be interested in applying methods (and uninterested in developing methods) than academic statisticians. Although academic statisticians should be more interested in the applying methods paper than they often are...
    – Cliff AB
    Feb 16, 2016 at 5:16

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .