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Systematic approaches to literature review searching

Conducting a scoping search

Selecting a good research topic may not be easy. Once you have selected a topic that you are interested in, you may find it useful to conduct a scoping search. This will enable you to familiarise yourself with the key debates and current issues, and allow you to better focus your research question.

What is a scoping search?

A scoping search is a search of the existing literature which will help you to get an overview of the range and depth of research on your topic.

Scoping searches are useful for:

  • Finding out if your proposed research question has already been investigated, or is being researched elsewhere
  • Identifying key issues, current debates and research trends in your area
  • Identifying gaps in research
  • Defining the scope of your research.

To conduct your initial scoping search try searching:

  • Core electronic databases (multidisciplinary and subject specific)
  • The Library Catalogue
  • Google
  • Google Scholar.

A scoping search will help you formulate a clearer, more refined research question. However, prepare to be flexible - depending on what you find when you begin your research, you may wish to broaden, narrow, or focus on a different aspect of your topic. It is quite common to modify a topic during the research process.

Focusing your research question

Keep your topic manageable. A topic will be very difficult to research if the question is too broad or too narrow. In most instances you will start with a broad topic. If you then identify an unmanageable amount of literature, you may need to narrow it. There are several ways to narrow your topic:

  • Focus on a particular geographic location, time period, or population
  • Choose a particular aspect of the topic, or focus on key issues or current debates.

If we decided to look at the topic of sustainable tourism, some ways to narrow the topic are by:

  • Geographical area, e.g. sustainable tourism in South East Asia
  • Population group, e.g. the effect of sustainable tourism on indigenous Australian communities
  • Key issues, e.g. the effect of sustainable tourism on alleviating poverty in developing countries.

Keep in mind that a topic may be too difficult to research if it is too:

  • Locally restricted - coverage of topics confined to a very specific locale may only be covered in sources such as local newspapers
  • Recent - if a topic is very recent, books or journal articles may not be available
  • Broad - you could be overwhelmed with too much information.

Need further help in developing your research question? See:

GRASP Candidacy Proposal Series 2: Developing and refining your research questions