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Orientation on your topic

When you have selected a topic you need to find literature on, you will first have to familiarize yourself with the topic in order to clarify it. Especially, if the topic is new to you. In this way you will get a clearer idea of all aspects concerning the topic, definitions, facts and theories. You will get to know related terms and concepts, the context and the various possible ways of approaching the topic. Often you will come across references to important literature during this phase.

In the orientation phase you should use printed or online encyclopaedias, handbooks and subject guides. Use the tables of contents and indexes of handbooks to find more information. In the University Library reading rooms you will find printed encyclopaedias, handbooks etc. The Electronic databases link on the Library web portal gives you access to electronic handbooks and encyclopaedias. And of course you can search SmartCat for more information.

Use these sources to find more information on your topic, such as secondary subjects, keywords, key people, etc.


Be consistent in the way you describe or define your research question. Formulate it as clearly and unambiguously as possible. And be very specific. This will help you decide which information is useful in answering your research question, and which is not.

See the chapter Defining your topic.

Primary and secondary sources

Sources for literature study are divided into primary and secondary sources.

A primary publication contains new information. It is the author’s first report of a discovery, or the first proof of a hypothesis. Examples of primary publications include journal articles, dissertations, reports and conference reports.

Secondary publications contain an overview of primary literature. They include encyclopaedias, handbooks and bibliographies.

Please note! In the Humanities, these terms have different meanings. Primary sources are the object of the research, while secondary sources give an interpretation or analysis of the primary sources.


When you are preparing to start your research, you can use Wikipedia to help you find terminology and search terms relevant to your topic. You may use the Wikimindmap tool to do this.

However, be aware that Wikipedia contains both articles of very high quality, but also unreliable information. This is because anyone can contribute to it. Adopt a critical attitude and always try to verify the information you have found on Wikipedia by using other information sources.

More possibilities for orientation

Do not limit yourself to encyclopaedias, handbooks and subject guides, but also use:

  • ‘standard’ textbooks, monographs: use SmartCat, or browse the shelves in the reading room.
  • news reports (for trends and current affairs): look at printed or online newspapers, or search Nexis Uni, a huge database giving access to tens of thousands of newspapers. (See the chapter I want to find news sources)
  • review articles. These give an overview of the current state of research in a particular field by summarizing and analyzing relevant literature on that area of research. In the Annual reviews database you will find review articles in various academic disciplines. In Web of Science you can add the review document type to your search terms. Many other databases allow you to add the search term review to your search string.
  • the internet, using search engines such as Google (See also the chapter Looking for information on the internet), e.g. by looking for web portals that have information on your topic.

TIP: Look in the LibGuide for your degree programme!!



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