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Journalism - Mass Media Research: Literature Search Essentials

Choosing a Research Topic

Things to think about when choosing a research topic:

  • If you are writing a dissertation, your literature search must be exhaustive.  Your research topic choice should allow you to break new theoretical ground or offer a unique perspective.  The literature already published on your research topic should be sparse.
  • If you are writing a thesis or research paper, choose a research topic about which peer-reviewed or scholarly literature has been written. 
    • The topic should not be centered around a very recent event, unless you are able to find scholarly literature assisting you in the comparison of coverage of past events to the recent one.  There is always a lag time between current events and the publishing of peer reviewed articles about the events.
  • Browse the literature with your topic in mind.  If there is a limited amount of peer reviewed articles related to your topic, rethink or broaden your topic.  If the amount of literature about your topic is plentiful, narrow the scope of your topic.

You Have a Research Topic, Now What?

Once you have decided on a research topic:

  • Work from the general to the specific.
  • Create a list of concept terms that you want to search.
  • Translate your topic into the subject language of the databases and catalogs you use--check your topic words against a thesaurus or subject heading list.
  • Take advantage of subject headings and descriptors found by exploiting the database thesaurus or subject guide.  Using subject specific "controlled language" will add precision to your search.
  • Exploit bibliographies.  These may lead you to other important resources.
  • Record what you find and where you found it—write out a complete citation for each source you find; you may need it again later. You can use a program like EndNote or Zotero to help with this. 

Where to Begin

What is the most appropriate place to begin research on a topic?

That depends on the subject area or your approach to the topic.

  • If your research can be confined to a specific subject, choose the most appropriate subject database to start your research.
  • If you are unsure of your topic or don't know which databases to search, try the new EBSCO tool:

It will allow you to search across books, journal articles, DVDs, and other media owned by or accessible through MU Libraries.

After you've narrowed your topic, try these resources.

  • Search the online catalog for books on your research topic.
    • Browse the references for author/experts in your area of interest.
    • Searching by subject will provide more focused results.
  • Make sure that you browse the Journalism guide for databases grouped by subject.
  • For journalism and communication topics choose these communication databases first.

Search several databases at one time to see how your topic was used in a variety of subjects.

Search dissertations and theses using:

  • MOSpace Digital Institutional Repository

Most universities make digital copies of their dissertations and theses freely available in their own institutional repositories.  To locate a dissertation from another university, use Google to search the university name and add the term "repository," or go directly to that institution's library and search their online catalog.  Repository items should be cataloged and be searchable in their online catalog.

News Databases, though not peer reviewed, may provide real world context to your topic:

Video Tutorial: Searching Essentials in EBSCOHost Databases

Tips and Techniques for Effective Searching

How can you create quality search strings to get the most out of the databases?

  • Most databases will allow you to create a “search history.”
  • Create a list of quality concept search terms. Try MU Libraries' Search Strategy Builder.
  • Search each concept individually and then use Boolean Logic operators to combine them.
    • "OR" between concept terms, broadens your search
      • Examples:  journalist OR reporter OR photographer OR correspondent = S1 (the first set of combined terms)
      • Examples:  "post-traumatic stress" OR PTSD = S2 ( the second set of combined terms)
    • "AND" between concept terms, narrows your search
      • Examples:  S1 AND S2 yields articles containing information about more than one type of journalist and trauma which might include PTSD
    • "NOT" between search terms means "search for the first term, but not the second."
      • Example:  Mexico NOT New Mexico

Use subject database thesauri to focus searches

  • Subject databases use terminology specific to the subject which can be found in their thesaurus.
    • Use the thesaurus to find the most appropriate terms to use to focus your searc.h

Once you have exhausted MU Libraries’ databases, try Google Scholar

  • Use the advanced search feature and filter by date and any other measure that can help focus your search.

What other resources should I consider using?

  • If you need to do an exhaustive search of the literature in this area, search books on this topic.  You can use keywords in the online catalog, but if there is a subject heading that describes your topic, use it for a more focused search.
    • Keyword searches add breadth while subject heading/descriptor searches provide depth to your search.
  • Search Research Networks for working papers and preprints
  • Search

Organize and Track Resources

How can I keep track of all these resources? 

  • Use a bibliographic/citation manager like Endnote or Zotero.
  • Many databases provide server space for you to save your searches.
  • Save your searches and results so that you can revisit them or share them.

How can I make sure that I don’t miss reading any new articles on my topic?

  • Most databases will provide the opportunity to create alerts.
  • Use your saved searches to create alerts to send any new articles on your topic to you either via email or rss.