Writing Clinic: The Literature Search

Michael Gerchufsky, ELS, is the managing editor of Consultant. E-mail him with thoughts on this post at

In earlier Writing Clinic blog posts, part 1, part 2, and part 3 of “Choose Your Topic Carefully,” I recommended a few first steps to contributing an article to Consultant. In part 1, part 2, and part 3 of “Choosing an Approach,” I discussed the array of possible article formats in the journal and other tips for approaching the writing of an article. My previous post offered advice about contacting the editor. In this post, I’d like to offer a few pointers about the literature search.

Because much about searching the literature is basic and self-evident, I won’t dwell too long on the topic. Still, a sloppily executed literature search can be a fatal flaw in an otherwise well-written, well-executed article.

The main piece of advice I’ll offer is to keep records as you go. Doing so will help you assimilate the information you find on your subject and help you create a properly attributed reference list. Keeping records also will help the editors and peer-reviewers assess the conclusions you have drawn from the literature, as well as fact-check your work. It’s very easy to mistype a medication dosage or unit, and the only way for the editors to catch a serious mistake (mg instead of mcg/µg, for example) is to have access to the original source material for cross-reference.

Keeping records about your literature search for the most part is extremely easy. Just create a folder on your desktop or in the cloud for your source material. Copy URLs into a document there, with notes on access dates, etc., if needed. File PDFs of articles there, and save screen captures of information that is otherwise difficult to download or save.

This process becomes extremely valuable if you have referenced material that’s more than a few years old or that’s otherwise off the beaten track. If you had trouble finding it, the editors and peer-review panelists will face the same challenge. Make it easy on them.

If the materials are nondigital — not every textbook and journal is available in full-text electronic format — many photocopiers now are capable of scanning documents and allowing you to email the files directly to yourself. Saving trees by avoiding printouts should be everyone’s goal.

While it’s not a requirement, feel free to submit the resources and records you’ve kept to the editor along with the manuscript. Otherwise, the editors will be contacting you for more information about esoterica you may have cited.

Next time: The first post on the nuts and bolts of the manuscript itself. Thanks for reading.