Conducting Educational Research
Step 8: Search the Research Literature
Importance of Finding Related Literature

Finding other research studies about the key variables in your study is important for a variety of reasons.

Tips for Searching for Resources on the Internet

Finding related research articles typically requires competence on the internet. To find articles, you must search through databases that have indexed information on thousands of research articles that have been conducted. (Keep reading below for some important databases for educational research.) Before going onto the internet, keep the following search tips in mind.

  1. List the major variables in the study. Oftentimes I'll hear that students type the entire topic into the search engine, such as "The effect of behavioral counseling on the retention of students in junior secondary schools." This is an error for two reasons. First, if the topic has already been written, there is no need for you to research the topic. Second, it is highly unlikely that any other research will use the exact same words as your topic, and the internet is not smart enough to identify the keywords in your topic that should be searched for. (See tip #2 for more on this point.) Instead, the key variables - in this case "behavioral counseling" and "retention" - are the keywords that you will use to search for related literature. Therefore, in the topic above, enter behavioral counseling in the search engine and not the entire topic.

  2. List synonyms for each variable. Other researchers may have conducted similar studies but used different keywords to describe the variables. For example, "exam malpractice" may also be called examination malpractice, malpractice, cheating, dishonesty, academic dishonesty, and many other phrases. Researchers who write about "academic dishonesty" will provide information that is quite useful to a study on "examination malpractice." These synonyms can also be used as keywords to search in the databases.

  3. Spend time outlining the major points to be made in the literature review. This will help provide focus to the literature review and help you avoid plagiarism. For example, here is part of an outline that I wrote for a study examining teachers' knowledge of literacy development:
    • Present statistics of poor literacy rates in Nigeria
    • Research [e.g., Shuman (1987)] found that teachers' knowledge of discipline - in this case literacy - influences teaching practices
    • Researchers have identified best practices in teaching early literacy, including the importance of frequent reading and positive outcomes of frequent reading
    Now that I have written the outline, I know that I need to find articles that give statistics on literacy rates in Nigeria, report on the effect of teachers' knowledge of a discipline, and describe best practices in teaching early literacy. This information will shape my literature search.

  4. Do not limit your search to only studies that examine all of the same variables as your study. Your project will probably examine multiple variables, such as the three variables of social development, emotional development, and early childhood education. If you are studying these three variables, you should find some studies about social development, some studies about emotional development, and some studies about early childhood education. The research studies that you are searching for do not have to include all three variables as your study does. Indeed, a study that only examines social development will provide important information that a study that examines both social and emotional development will not.

  5. Put key phrases in quotation marks. If you enter intrinsic motivation in a search box, then the words "intrinsic" and "motivation" can appear anywhere in the document. You might find articles that read "The current state of affairs provides motivation to examine the intrinsic health of children," clearly not something that a researcher examining intrinsic motivation is interested in. However, if "intrinsic motivation" in quotation marks is entered into the search box, then intrinsic and motivation must always be together in that exact order.

  6. When searching online, use the limit function to reduce searches that have too many results. Typing "intrinsic motivation" into a database will provide thousands of hits because much research has been conducted on this variable. Instead of wading through thousands of articles, limit the search to only articles you are interested in. Perhaps you are interested in intrinsic motivation in education. You can limit the search by also requiring the word "education" to be included in the article. You may also limit by the population you are interested in, such as age, gender, or ethnicity. This is easier in academic databases, instead of Google (see the next section on Online Resources for examples of academic databases).

  7. Limit your use of Google. The internet provides many options for finding academic literature. As a scholar, Google should be the last place you should look for research literature because Google searches information written by all people, not just scholars. A teenager in secondary school could write an article on intrinsic motivation as a class requirement and have it posted on the internet. This clearly is not an appropriate source for an academic research paper. Therefore, try to use other online resources as described below.

  8. Do not cite wikipedia as a source. Like Google, anybody can edit articles on wikipedia. Therefore, wikipedia should never be used as a source for an academic paper.

  9. Use the resources you have to find additional resources. Let's say you are conducting a study about children's classroom engagement and you read the following line in a journal article: "One study found...notable differences in the reported beliefs of preschool teachers of lower verses middle socioeconomic status children (Lee & Ginsburg, 2007)." You are interested in learning more about this study by Lee & Ginsburg. Therefore, look in the References section of the journal article you are currently reading for Lee & Ginsburg, 2007. Once you find the title of the article, then go online and type the title into Google Scholar with quotation marks surrounding it: "Preschool teachers' beliefs about appropriate early literacy and mathematics education for low- and middle-socioeconomic status children." If you are able to find the article on the internet, you now have used the resource you are currently reading to find another resource. In this way, each article you read can provide you information about other articles that are useful for your study.

Online Resources

The following are online resources that can be used to find published academic work about education.

ERIC: Educational Resources Information Center. Eric provides bibliographic information about education-related materials written for journals, books, conferences, and other educational resources. ERIC has the full-text for some articles, but not all. (Search tip: Click the box for "Full-text Only" when searching to find entire articles.)

JSTOR. JSTOR Provides full-text articles in multiple disciplines including the humanities and social sciences. JSTOR provides full-text to academic institutions in developing countries. However, your institution must register for that privilege, and you generally must be connected to JSTOR through your institution's internet connection or have your institution's login information. Thus, if you attend UniJos, you can only get full text articles if you are connected to JSTOR through the UniJos internet connection. An internet cafe in Jos cannot access full-text JSTOR articles. However, JSTOR does have another option to access full text articles: JSTOR Shelf. If you create a MyJSTOR account, you can add three articles to your "reading shelf" and read them for free. You must keep the articles on your shelf for 14 days, but then you can remove the articles and add three more articles.

HINARI. The HINARI Access to Research Program was developed by the World Health Organization to provide access to academic literature in developing countries. HINARI provides access to the most current issues of many psychological journals, as well as journals in many other fields. HINARI requires a username and passcode, which you can get if your academic institution is registered with HINARI. All academics should be familiar with current research, so you should regularly review interesting articles in journals in your field of interest. I recommend reviewing the following on HINARI for educational researchers.

  • Child Development
  • Contemporary Educational Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Journal of Educational Psychology
  • Journal of Experimental Child Psychology
  • Learning and Instruction
  • Review of Educational Research

PsycNET. The American Psychological Association has a free database that searches all of the journals that they publish. Although PsycNET can help you find the titles and abstracts of some of the best research that has been conducted in the world, you will not be able to access the full text of the articles through PsycNET. Instead, read the next section for tips on accessing full text articles to try to find the actual article. When you click on the link to PsycNET above, it appears that you need to log in. However, you do not if you just want to search the articles. Look to the header "New Users" and then click on "Search" right below.

Google Scholar. Google Scholar is just like Google, but it only searches scholarly literature such as journal articles and books. If you want to use Google for an academic paper, instead use Google Scholar to ensure that you are accessing academic writings. If, after doing a search in Google Scholar, you click on the title of the article, it will take you to the website of the original publisher of the article. You may or may not be able to access the full text of the article there. However, if the full text of the article has been posted for free on the internet, it will be linked just to the right of the title.

Gutenberg. The Project Gutenberg provides full text of books with expired copyright, meaning that the book is likely quite old.

National Academies Press National Academies Press publishes reports by research organizations in the United States, including high quality educational research. NAP allows free downloads of their books for people living in developing countries. If you click on a book of interest from an internet connection in a developing country, there should automatically be a link that says "Download Free PDF."

International Academy of Education The International Academy of Education publishes syntheses of research-based educational practices. To this end, top educational scholars have written short publications that summarize well-established educational principles that are available for free on the website. Click on the Ed Practice Series or Ed Policy Series links on the website for the research reports.

African Journals OnLine African Journals OnLine is the world's largest collection of peer-reviewed African scholarly journals. AJOL has a number of journals published in Africa online, some of which can be accessed for free and others that can be accessed for a reduced rate with a credit card.

Professional Organizations. There are many professional organizations that focus on various aspects of education, such as the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Many of these professional organizations publish resources and position statements online for free that provide valuable information for educational researchers. Other times, these organizations require payment for their publications, but offer free access for a limited time. For example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) has published standards for mathematics education that can be accessed for free for 120 days, requiring only registration with an email address.

Accessing Full Text Articles

Oftentimes, it is easy to find the titles of good research articles, but then you have to pay quite a bit of money to access the full text of the article. Here are some tips to try to access the full text of articles or books for free.

  • Use Google Scholar. Sometimes, researchers will post the full text of their article on a personal website. To find the article, put the article title in quotation marks in the Google Scholar search box. If the article has been posted on the internet for free, there will be a link to the right of the title with the format of the free article. For example, the link may read [PDF] from

  • Use Google Books or Amazon. If you are looking for a part of a book, then you might be able to access it at Google Books or Amazon. Both of these websites have portions of books online, largely for marketing purposes. If you are able to access a portion of the book, realize that the number of pages you will be able to read will be limited due to copyright restrictions. Therefore, go straight to the part of the book that you are interested in. For both websites, search for the title of the book. Once you click on the book, if a portion of the book is online, there will be a place for you to click to look inside the book. Once you click on that link, immediately look for the Table of Contents. In the Table of Contents, you can click on the portions of the book that are available for viewing. (Not all portions of the book may be available.) Again, remember that you will only be able to view a limited number of pages, so look for the most important information first.

  • Email the author. If you cannot find an article on the internet, try emailing the author. Most databases will provide an email address for the lead author of the paper. In the email, describe the topic you are studying and the title of the article that you are interested in. Explain that your library in Nigeria does not carry the article and you do not have the resources or means to pay for the full article. Then ask if the author could email you a copy of the article. In general, I have found authors to be very helpful if asked politely.


When searching for related literature, a caution needs to be made about plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious, dishonest offense that can result in expulsion from the university. Plagiarism is any attempt to present another person's ideas or words as your own. According to, the following behaviors are considered plagiarism:

  • Turning in someone else's work as your own.

  • Copying words or ideas from another work without giving credit. Any idea that does not come directly from your mind must be referenced. For example, the statement "Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development" must be referenced because this was not my original idea.

  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation. If you did not read the original work, then reference the original work "as cited in" and include the paper you read in the references section.

  • Failing to put a direct quote in quotation marks. All words in a paper must be your own. Any direct quotes must be put in quotation marks!

  • Changing the words but copying the sentence structure of another work without giving credit. To avoid this, do not take notes word-for word when reading a paper. Instead, summarize the key points in your own words.

  • Copying so many words or ideas from another work that it makes the majority of your paper, regardless of whether you give credit or not. This can be avoided by outlining the literature review before finding literature to be reviewed.

I gave more detailed information about plagiarism, including tips to avoid plagiarism, is found in Ethical Considerations in Research.


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