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BHS 252 - Modeling Systems of Life

1. Choose a topic and define the research question

I don't know what to research!

Choosing a research topic is often the hardest part of doing research.  Start by asking yourself:

  • What have I found interesting in class discussions?
  • Is there anything in a class reading that is of interest?
  • Is there anything in class I am curious about?
  • Is there a topic you already know something about?
  • Is there a conflict or debate in the literature that interests you?

When choosing a research topic you may want to perform some exploratory searching in databases so that you can see what's already been published on your topic.

Use Web of Science to Explore a Topic

Since science builds on the research of others, Web of Science is a great tool for exploring a topic.  Here are a few tips to help.

  • Start with a broad search.
  • Use system features to search within your results or narrow (by subject, publication type, authors, etc.). 
  • Use the search history to return to repeat a previous search.
  • Use the  times cited  to trace research forward.  Who has used this research to build their own research?
  • Look at the cited references to trace research backwards.  What research did this researcher think was important?
  • Use related records to find related research based on shared citations.  Who is doing similar research?

Remember - searching is an iterative process.  

Video on Defining Your Research Topic

Choosing your topic IS research!  When you pick your topic, it's not set in stone. Picking and adjusting your topic is an integral part of the research process.

2. Determine inclusion/exclusion criteria

Once you have a clearly defined research question, you can get the right search results from searching the databases by making decisions about the following items:

  • Select a time frame for relevant search results.
    • Would the most recent five years be appropriate?
    • Is your research from a more historical perspective?
  • Select a geography (and language)
    • Where has this type of research taken place?
    • Will you confine your results to the United States?
    • To English speaking countries?
    • Will you translate works if needed?
  • Choose research constraints
    • Is there a particular methodology, or population that you are focused on?
  • Consider inter-disciplinary fields
    • Are there adjacent fields in which this type of research has been conducted that you would like to include?
  • Consider the organizing structure for your review
    • Is there a controversy or debate in your research field that you want to highlight
    • Are you creating a historical overview? Is this background reading for your research?
    • Is there new technology that can shed light on an old problem or an old technology that can be used in a new way?

3. Choose databases and conduct the search

Choosing a Database

Developing a Search Strategy:

Keep a record of the keywords and methods used in searching (for describing how the search was conducted)

  • Keywords: remember variations in spelling and synonyms (use the database thesaurus)
    • paediatric/pediatric
    • pressure ulcers/pressure sores
  • Use Boolean operators 'AND','OR' and 'NOT’
  • Don't forget about truncations/wild cards to get all variations of a word
  • Use facets/filters provided to include or exclude records
    • Use the analyze feature in Web of Science to find out the author(s) who have written the most papers on your topic, institution(s) where most research has been done, or see subject areas of the records in your results.

  • Use existing literature reviews and systematic reviews
    • Good overview of the research
    • Source of bibliographic references
  • Time frame 5-10 years (except seminal/influential works)


Citation searching

Citation searching allows you to see what's been done in the past, and where the research is progressing. You can trace (or chase) citations backward and forward in time



  • Cited References 
    • Listed at the end of a research paper 
    • May lead you to the seminal pieces of literature
    • This is looking backwards in time
  • Times Cited 
    • Number of papers that have cited a particular paper.  
    • May help to find new areas of research and new methodologies or controversies. 
    • This the forward looking part of your research.
  • Related Records 
    • Papers that share references.
    • Helps identify areas that are similar or adjacent to your research.
    • Looking at these is optional. 

4. Review your results

  • Save your search results in a citation management tool (such as Zotero).  Visit this page for more information.
  • De-duplicate your search results
  • Make sure that you've found the seminal pieces -- they have been cited many times, and their work is considered foundational 
  • Assess the journals and consider whether they are key journals in the field (high impact factor)

5. Synthesize the information gathered

Synthesis is capturing what you found in a succinct way.

  • Sort the literature into categories or themes. Themes may relate to:
    • Theories
    • Methodologies or techniques
    • Geographies
    • Conflicting opinions 
    • Time frames
  • Describe how the  research has evolved over time
  • Develop conclusions and summarize what's been done in the past

6. Analyze the information gathered

Ask yourself questions like these about each book or article you include:

  • What is the research question?
  • Why is this work significant?
  • What are the major themes and main conclusions?
  • What research methods were used?
  • What are the main conclusions? Are they reasonable?
  • What theories are used to support the researcher's conclusions?

Take notes on the books and articles as you read them and identify any themes or concepts that may apply to your research question. Use the template below as a guide for taking notes.


Also, there are features in the Web of Science that can help you narrow and analyze your results.

  • Use facets such as date and publication type to either select or exclude records. (See quick reference card)
  • Use the analyze feature to find out the author(s) who have written the most papers on your topic, institution(s) where most research has been done, or see subject areas of the records in your results. 

7. Write the literature review


  • Focus on your research question and the most pertinent studies
  • Organize the citations (and make sure they are complete) 
  • Compile the bibliography using the appropriate citation format for the field

Your review should follow this structure:

  • Abstract
    • Write this last
    • A summary of your main thesis and the studies you examine in your review
  • Introduction
    • Introduce your topic
    • Outline what you will discuss throughout the review
    • Frame the paper with your thesis
    • Tell your audience why it is important that you reviewed the literature in your topic area
  • Body
    • Can take different forms depending on your topic
    • Break it up into sections if this is helpful (i.e. if you are studying three different methodologies, then you can break your body into three main sections)
    • Go through all of the literature in detail, in an organized fashion
  • Discussion/Conclusion
    • Restate your thesis
    • Wrap up your review by drawing everything together and making sure it is clear what conclusions you draw about your topic or field of study based on the research studies you read and analyzed.
  • References
    • Make sure your references are formatted correctly and all present
    • This paper is all about the references! Cite everything that you discuss. For tips on when and how to cite, visit the next page on the drop-down menu under "Writing in the Sciences!"