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Discovering the "State of the Art": Home

How to conduct a comprehensive literature search for scientific or technical research

Discovering the State of the Art

Discovering the "state of the art" is one of the most important concepts in scientific and technical research. What do we mean by "state of the art?" Merriam Webster defines "state of the art" as "the level of development (as of a device, procedure, process, technique, or science) reached at any particular time usually as a result of modern methods." In essence, it means learning all you can about what has been done in your field and what others are currently doing.

Discovering the state of the art is important for the following reasons:

  1. It will save you time and effort. You avoid "recreating the wheel" and can launch your own research from the most advanced level of current knowledge and understanding.
  2. It will save you money and legal trouble. Ideas that are already being tested or are being commercialized are probably protected by intellectual property (IP) law. See the library's intellectual property guide for more details on IP. Using protected IP opens you and/or your employer to legal action.

Discovering the state of the art is accomplished by conducting what's called a "literature search" of relevant documents in your area of research. Typically, the types of literature searched are:

  1. BOOKS Use books to find historical information, in-depth research on a broad topic, tables of scientific information and more. Books can provide introductory and comprehensive information on your topic.  Books are great sources because they have been rigorously edited and fact-checked before they get published.  You will find high quality information in books.   One thing to watch out for is the year the book was published; some books may not be current enough for your topic.
  2. JOURNAL ARTICLES  Articles are great for when you want to find the most current research on your topic or when you need detailed information about very specific subject.  There are many types of articles.  Some are written by scholars and undergo rigorous peer review; others are written by journalists in the industry and do not face the same scrutiny.  You'll find articles from journals and newspapers, as well as conference reports, book reviews, editorials, and popular magazines inside our databases.
  3. "GREY LITERATURE"  "Grey literature" consists of technical reports, research reports, government reports, white papers, and similar documents. Like journal articles, they can be more current that books. In many cases, grey literature provides information on research being conducted before it is published in scholarly journals.
  4. PATENTS  Patents are useful for two reasons. First, they often provide the only information on research being conducted by corporate research and development teams. Second, patents are a form of intellectual property protection and and grant exclusive legal rights to the patent holders to use the patented invention.

Citation Searching and Analysis using Web of Science

In addition to finding articles by topic or author, the Web of Science database allows researchers to explore scientific literature by citations and references. Web of Science allows you to follow references both backwards and forwards through time, so you can:

  • discover articles and papers citing a particular author or paper
  • determine the most influential articles and/or researchers in a particular topic by the number of times they've been cited
  • find related articles based on the number of shared references

The publisher of Web of Science provides a number of tutorials on how to use these features. View them here:

Read These Tips Before You Start

Librarians often find themselves repeating the same research tips when they meet with students and faculty.  Taking a few minutes to read this list of helpful hints could save you tons of time when you are searching.

1. Always start from the library website or this guide when you want to access a database.  Most databases need to know that you are authorized to access their materials.  When you go to a database's web site it will not be able to identify that you are an approved user.  When you go through an IIT library page you will be able to authenticate correctly and use the database right away.

2. Spend a few minutes test driving a database you've never used before.  Check out the help guides, try a few searches, and see how this database may be different from ones you've used before. 

3. Most databases don't search the way Google searches.  Entering a long phrase such as "how computer automation is used in federal government" in one search box doesn't usually work in a database.  Check the database's help section to learn how to best search that particular database.

3. There is no one perfect search.  Try many searches in many places to find what you are looking for.

4. Take advantage of any "folders" or "lists" available in the database or library catalog.  Use these to keep track of articles or books you will want to read later.  The URL at the top of the page is often a session-specific URL, meaning it will only work that one time. 

5. Does the library not have immediate access to the article or book you want?  We can get you nearly every book or article you want to read using our I-Share catalog for books or MyILL for articles.  These are fast and free services.  Use the box above to create your accounts so you can begin requesting items.

6. Please let us know when you are having any troubles from choosing the best databases to fixing a dead link.  We can't help or fix it if we don't know there's a problem.  See our Ask a Librarian page to contact us by IM, email, phone or in person.

Subject Guide

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Charles W. Uth
Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Tech
35 W. 33rd St, Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 567-5319


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