Best practice for effective searching for literature reviews

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In a webinar with Research Information, given in November 2019, Rhianna Gamble and Carol Hollier of IFIS presented on the topic of literature reviews in food science.

IFIS is a not-for-profit publisher and educational charity, producing the FSTA database for researching scientific and technological food information, available through platforms such as EBSCO.

In 2018, we commissioned research into the information needs and search behaviour of researchers and students in food science, focusing primarily on the academic community.

Here, and in the webinar, we share a few key findings from that research, published by Korjonen and Barratt in Science & Technology Libraries, and some of the work which IFIS has undertaken in response. The research found literature reviews to be a major area of concern:

  • A high proportion of faculty supervising research (~86%) were concerned about the quality of students’ skills in undertaking literature reviews

The greatest concerns were around the quality and range of sources students currently include in literature reviews. Other concerns mentioned were students’ lack of understanding of a number of key factors, including what literature reviews are, the level of rigour needed to conduct them , how to evaluate and interpret the sources they find, and not going back far enough into the literature.

  • An almost equal percentage (85%) of those undertaking literature reviews were concerned about doing them

They shared the same primary concerns of quality and range of sources, and also mentioned challenges around the quantity of results retrieved from search engines (‘[Searching on Google] is like drinking from a fire hose!’) and the issue of predatory journals.

Ineffective literature searching during the process of carrying out a literature review risks overlooking vital information, wasting valuable time by building on unreliable / incomplete results and by repeating research that has already been done, potentially rendering new research insignificant.

We know that the process of searching for literature is complicated by an abundance of search tools and the huge growth in published research. With so much information available, how can researchers be sure that they find all of the information they need, and that it is the most relevant and authoritative?

Korjonen and Barratt said ‘There is a need to highlight how a numerically higher number of results does not equate to a higher number of relevant results. Balancing quality and quantity is a challenge for researchers… [an] opportunity is for librarians to use instruction to educate on searching to improve quality of their searching, the results but also the final output (e.g. a paper or thesis).

As an educational charity, we have been working on ways to support the development of these essential information literacy skills, as part of our mission to fundamentally understand and best serve the information needs of the food community.

We recently published our best practice for literature searches. Part 1 explains the purpose and nature of literature reviews, searches and critical appraisal. Part 2 provides practical guidance and templates, including: 

  • Defining your research question

  • Determining where you are most likely to find the literature

  • Creating an effective search strategy for each of the resources that you are going to search

  • Deciding what to include in your review through critical appraisal

  • And additional things to bear in mind – reference management, copyright, paper acquisition and data protection

We hope that this will be a valuable resource for the food community, helping students and researchers to understand and undertake effective searches for literature reviews.

Visit the IFIS website for the best practice and to learn more about the FSTA database as a search tool for efficient, targeted searching and food information you can trust.

To request a free trial of the FSTA database on EBSCOhost® or EBSCO Discovery Service™, please contact your EBSCO representative, or visit


Maria Helena Korjonen & Caroline C. Barratt (2019): The Role of the Academic Librarian in the Sciences of Food and Health, Science & Technology Libraries, DOI: 10.1080/0194262X.2019.1585310 To link to this article: