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How to Search Science and Engineering Databases to Construct Literature Reviews for Theses/Dissertations

  1. A comprehensive literature review is the result of searching multiple databases with multiple search terms (expanded searching) so that nearly everything pertaining to the topic will be found. For a comprehensive literature review, begin with a search of the major indexing tools for engineering available from the OSU Library: Compendex, Inspec, SPIN, SciFinder Scholar, and NTIS. Next, a search of Web of Science is recommended. One should also consider a search of subject specific databases in the respective discipline such as Biological Abstracts for biological issues, ASABE for agricultural and biosystems topics, and so on. (Article Databases) Note the relationship between databases and indexed subject matter on the image below.
  2. Expand a search term by using Boolean OR, synonyms, truncation, and NOT operators so that large sets of results are obtained. Obtain as many results as possible.

    Example search Compendex.

    Initial search:
    concrete AND (modulus of elasticity) AND rebar -
    24 results
    Expanded search:
    concrete AND ((modulus of elasticity) or rigid* or stiff*) AND (rebar or struct* or reinforc*) -
    7496 results
    Another term:
    high early strength -
    1905 results
  3. The idea is to manipulate the search terms so that you find articles on your topic. In principle, then, combine 2 or more large sets which result from an expanded search to produce a manageable number of results. Or combine one large set with a single term. Notice in the example below that the expanded search produced results; whereas, the unexpanded search produced nothing.

    Combine initial search with high early strength:
    (concrete AND (modulus of elasticity) AND rebar) AND (high early strength) -
    0 Results
    Combine expanded search with high early strength:
    (concrete AND ((modulus of elasticity) or rigid* or stiff*) AND (rebar or struct* or reinforc*)) AND (high early strength) -
    36 results
  4. Continue to focus your results by adding search terms specific to particular aspects of your research topic. Save those results in the databases that provide that capability (most do).
  5. Locate review articles (articles that summarize the literature on a particular topic) as well as articles that are frequently cited in more recent journal articles. These articles tend to provide you with a fundamental understanding of the topic, including synonyms and related terms to search with. Compendex results can be limited by treatment type, which include literature review, general review, numerical, etc. Web of Science is particularly useful for locating review articles.
  6. Web of Science features cited reference searching, which is an effective way to trace the development of theory over time. See the sketch below. A cited reference search indicates the number of times an article has been cited; this is often called forward searching because the cited articles are dated _later_ than the original article. Backward searching is a search of the references, and the references are to publications dated _prior_ to the original article.
  7. Throughout this process identify the terms, authors, and journals publishing on your research topic that frequently appear in your searches and employ those items in the search process to obtain additional information as needed (Moretti, 2000).
  8. Create search alerts in each database based on your research topic. The image below shows the ‘search history’ from Compendex. On the right hand side of the screen select ‘Email Alert’ for the each of the items for which you would like to receive a weekly update which shows articles published in the last week pertaining to the research topic.
  9. Consult the patent and technical report sources. Some of these documents provide references to the literature.
  10. A search of the web is appropriate after searching the Library’s databases. Use Google/Google Scholar to supplement the library’s databases. One can confirming citations, locate resumes, and in some cases bibliographies on a topic.
  11. Searching for information for a research topic is a trial and error process, consult your advisor if you are not locating information on your topic. Plan on discussing your findings with your advisor.
  12. The use of bibliographic management software, such as EndNote, is recommended for graduate students. This software is useful for saving citations used in the literature review and/or bibliography. Many of the databases in science and engineering have an export feature which inserts selected citations into an EndNote file for later use. The Oklahoma State University Library provides the software either as a download or CD.
Moretti, P (2000). Modern Vibrations Primer. Chapter 43: Literature Searches. p.1.

Article databases

(most of these have a keyword alerting service)
  • ACM (Association of Computing Machinery)
  • ASABE (American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers) Technical Library - material pertaining to ag and biosystems engineering
  • CAB Abstracts – covers of agriculture, forestry, animal health, and conservation of natural resources.
  • Compendex – covers all engineering fields (abstract, some full text links)
    • Academic Source Elite – numerous journals
    • Agricola - bibliographic records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Library
    • Biological Abstracts - Index to biology, botany, zoology, microbiology, clinical and experimental medicine and biochemistry.
    • Biological & Agricultural Index - covers nearly 250 English-language periodicals in life sciences and agricultural subjects, published in the U.S. and elsewhere.
    • Computer and Applied Sciences Complete Replaces Applied Science and Technology Abstracts. Covers computing hardware and software, engineering and applied science.
    • General Science Abstracts Coverage includes anthropology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, computers, earth sciences, medicine and health, zoology
    • Inspec - This is the index for (IEL) IEEE/IEE Electronic Library – plus the remaining 90% is indexing of other electrical, computer science and physics information. Also, biosystems, sensors, etc. Inspec also indexes a large percentage of the SPIE Digital Library. Jan 2005 to present 100% indexing of SPIE DL in Inspec.
  • FSTA (Food Science and Technology Abstracts) - Food science, food technology, and human nutrition, including basic food science, biotechnology, toxicology, packaging, and engineering. (from the database description)
  • IEL (IEEE/IET Electronic Library – Electrical engineering, computer science and physics.
  • Science Direct (abstracts and percentage of full text) Broad coverage of the sciences
  • SciFinder Scholar – Chemical Abstracts from 1907 to the present in an electronic format. Requires icon installed on the desktop to use.
  • SPIN (Searchable Physics Information Notices)
    Subject coverage: electrical engineering, computer science, and physics, including photonics. The database includes bibliographic records and abstracts for more than 1.5 million articles from major physical science journals, magazines, and conference proceedings published by the American Institute of Physics, its member societies, and other affiliated organizations. The SPIN database differs from Scitation (a subset of SPIN) in that it includes articles that are hosted on other online platforms. Upon entering SPIN to search - the default search from the interface searches both Scitation and SPIN. To confuse matters, that initial interface is called “Scitation” – instead of something else to reflect a larger universe of holdings.

    SPIN indexes the following:
    SPIE Digital Library
    American Institute of Physics journals
    American Physical Society journals
    Nature (2000 – present)

    Scitation (a subset of SPIN) includes links to many rich sources of information, including ISI's Web of Science, MEDLINE, Chemport/Chemical Abstracts Service, SPIN database, INSPEC, EDP Sciences, X-ArkiV, SLAC-SPIRES, and other Scitation journals, among others. Scitation is the re-launch of the Online Journal Publishing Service (OJPS).
  • SPIE Digital Library - optics, photonics
  • Water Resources Abstracts
  • Web of Science – Science Citation Index and Current Contents alerting service in an electronic format. Highly useful for tracing citations, forwards and backwards – Alerting Service. This is a very important alerting service to establish. Updates can be sent weekly on a given topic

Handbook Databases

Online Encyclopedias for Industrial Chemistry/Chemical Engineering



Government Published and Gray Literature Databases

(articles, technical reports, legal)


ILS (Interlibrary Services)

Locating full-text

  1. Study abstracts
  2. Make decisions about usefulness
  3. If there is no link from the abstract to the online or print full text, then Plug journal title, conference title, etc into Full-text Periodical Title database and Catalog to determine OSU full text availability.
  4. Determine if full text found meets needs
If you found useful abstract(s) but the full-text did not meet the need
Try new search
Boolean AND – restricts search
Synonyms with Boolean OR widen search
Truncation (design*) - widens search
Proximity operator – restricts search
If you just need more of the same
Use same or similar search terms in another database:
Index terms in the abstract
Also called “controlled terms” in Compendex

Contact Information

Kevin Drees
Engineering Librarian
Science & Engineering Division
Room 306
Edmon Low Library
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma 74078-1071
Phone: (405)744-9751

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Last Updated: 25 March 2008