Photo By Juliette Leufke On Unsplash

How to look for research

Our second year groups are looking at potential questions to investigate and are trying to find out what research already exists. So we asked one of our Let Toys Be Toys – Parenting Science Gang members, Katie Alcock, to write a post on how to do a literature search (look for published research), even if you’ve never done one before!

Let’s get started

It’s always helpful if you have something to start with – so if you have read a relevant academic or semi-academic book, they may have a reference that will give you a clue. I don’t read that much in this area but I really enjoyed Delusions of Gender which is based on actual research and I’m in the middle of The Gender Trap which ditto. The same if you’ve seen a scientist interviewed in the media; sometimes they don’t actually write in the area in question (of course this has NEVER happened to me, cough) but often they have a nice paper to be starting with.

Sometimes there will be a slightly relevant paper but not quite on your topic e.g. you want to know about caregivers using gendered language but the paper is on parents. Never fear, everyone cites research in vaguely the same area, so have a look at the paper you have.

Once you have a reference on a vaguely relevant topic to start with – try and find a copy of that paper, will will call this Your Index Paper (or YIP for short). These days you are fortunate – I remember when I were a lass and I had to send postcards to authors to ask them to post me a paper copy of their paper!

Google Scholar (GS) is your friend here, and many papers are freely downloadable once you’ve found them on there. If not, you can always email the authors and ask for a copy.

The two places to look for papers-related-to YIP are

  • papers that YIP has cited, and
  • papers that have cited YIP.

At the end of YIP is the list of references it has cited – just search for one of those if they look relevant. These will obviously all be OLDER than YIP.

And if you want papers that have cited YIP, go to Google Scholar, search for YIP and there’s a little clicky link to tell you how many times it’s been cited. These were obviously all be NEWER than YIP.

Not found anything that suits or is relevant yet? Time for a raw search on Google Scholar. Think up some key words – as an academic I find it hard sometimes to work out what key words someone else is using in their papers so trial and error may be necessary. So you may have a question in front of you that says “nursery carers” but in fact you find that all the researchers are using “daycare workers” or “caregivers”. Changing the wording might give you more hits (or might lead you down a blind alley!).

Know your sources

A word of caution about GS too. Google Scholar is quite, er, generous in what it indexes. It will happily index as a “scientific” paper, a single author book that is selling a service and that nobody has ever found any evidence for. Beware!

You are much better off going with articles in journals (you can Google the journal itself and it will be able to tell you if it’s peer reviewed i.e. other scientists test the quality before publishing the paper). Avoid popular parenting books (they often misquote science if they quote it at all). Avoid newspaper articles.

For the gold standard you may strike it lucky and find a meta-analysis or a review article. Meta-analyses are the best really – they will look at ALL the papers on e.g. gendered language by parents and see whether the majority find one thing or another or if the average finding is neutral; whether intervening in a classroom can reduce children’s gendered behaviour etc. etc.
Review articles don’t do further analysis on other papers but do summarise them helpfully.
So both of those are really great terms to include in your search on GS.

Hope that helps!

Other top tips

Our brilliant members then chipped in with more advice:

  • If you are in Google Scholar and you want to collate the papers you’ve found into a document – click the button and then it gives you a load of options about how to copy the article (I use APA) and then it will give you all the citation including the journal.
  • It often helps to think what terms other countries use to describe the thing you are searching for. So if you wanted something about nursery aged children you might want to try using nursery, early years, pre-school, day nurseries etc. as sometimes really relevant research doesn’t pop up due to differences in language.
  • The British Library Ethos scheme gives free online access to UK PhD theses.
  • A tip for getting the full text of academic papers – try just googling the whole title. Most funders insist on papers being open access now, and so many universities publish uncorrected proofs (or even corrected proofs) on their website. So a little digging may find you a copy.


Leave a Reply