The importance of thorough searches of the research literature

Kate McKenna, MEd, MSEd, BCBA, LBA
Association for Science in Autism Treatment

Comprehensive Literature Search

There are numerous reasons why one might want to research a specific topic, intervention, or teaching protocol. Special educators may be searching for new teaching or intervention strategies to use in their classrooms. BCBAs may need to learn more about an intervention suggested by a team member or be fulfilling the ethical obligation to maintain competency and provide effective treatment that is conceptually consistent with behavioral principles and based on scientific evidence (BACB, 2014). Whatever the goal, it is important to conduct a complete review of the literature on the topic in which you are interested.

The goal of reviewing literature is to gain an understanding of the history of the intervention, the evidence bases for its application, current developments or changes in its application that may have recently occurred, what core features of autism it impacts, and how that impact is measured. In some cases, this may involve reading articles that were published over a period of years. An example is functional analysis (FA), which has undergone many changes since the seminal research of Iwata et al., in 1994. Writing a treatment summary on FA, for example, might involve a discussion of the many formats (latency, trial-based, precursor behavior) as well as the work being done by Greg Hanley with the Interview-Informed Synthesized Contingency Analysis (IISCA) (Hanley, 2012; Jessel, et al., 2019).

Guidelines for contacting the literature are described below, some of which may seem duplicative. However, it is important to be thorough, as the goal is to identify a complete list of articles and other resources, such as webinars, books, or whitepapers.

How to get started

Beginning the research requires a database through which you find articles in peer reviewed journals by searching with combinations of author names and keywords. PsycINFO is available to those affiliated with a college or university through the institution’s library. Including other databases such as ERIC, Education Sources, or Medline in your search will reveal articles from non-behavior analytic journals that may be relevant to your investigation.

There are four overarching ways to conduct a search. These are detailed below.

    1. Search strategies related to databases: Effective search strategies involve using combinations of keywords related to the topic and author(s) name(s). When using an academic database, it is possible to search specific journals by topic, for example searching the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA) with the keyword instructive feedback to find articles on that topic in chronological order of publication date. The reference librarians at college or university libraries can assist in scheduling updates using keywords. If you know you will be writing a treatment summary and have an anticipated publication date, set up an alert on multiple search services several months in advance so you will receive notices of currently published articles on your topic of interest.
    2. Search strategies related to author(s): It is often the case that a particular author or authors will become known for research in a specific topic. For example, Greg Hanley is well known for his work in expanding the scope and formats of functional assessment. If you are using the name(s) of the author(s) to search an academic database, such as Google Scholar or Research Gate, you will be able to use the author’s name to find other articles on the topic. Frequently published authors may have their own website or page on a college/university website. It is likely that their most current publications will be listed there. These webpages may also list webinars or conference presentations by the author. Those presentations may cite current research on the topic in which you are interested.
    3. Search strategies related to a specific article: If you are beginning your search because of an interest in a topic from a specific article, it is possible to use many of the search strategies already discussed. Search academic databases or Google Scholar using keywords in the article title and those listed within the abstract. When you find a relevant article on PsycINFO, for example, make a note of the subsequently published articles that have cited it. Review the abstracts of any articles you identify to determine if they are applicable to the treatment summary. If there is a seminal article on the topic, find it on PsycINFO and make a note of the articles that have cited it. Review the abstracts of any articles you identify to determine if they are applicable to the treatment summary. As you read the article, take note of any articles cited that pertain to the points of interest to you. Conduct an archeological search by looking through article references for other authors who have published articles on the topic. Follow search procedures for these authors and articles.
    4. Search strategies related to topic: When beginning a search of the research literature by topic, search academic databases or Google Scholar using keywords related to the topic. This will allow you to develop a list of authors who write frequently on the topic. Search for webinars, TED Talks, or podcasts on the topic on the Internet. Again, you may need to research the presenters’ bios and organizations. If you are interested in writing a historical overview, search databases with an unlimited time period (in years). This might help you find seminal articles or a timeline of articles that would show developments over time.

Depending on your research needs it may also be helpful to select a year after which articles will be displayed. For example, if you are looking to update your knowledge on a topic and are familiar with the literature up until 2019, you may only want articles published on the topic since then. Most databases have the capability to let you refine the parameters of your search to articles published in a specific time period, in this case from 2019 to 2021.

Other sources of relevant information

When conducting research, it is possible to find resources outside of peer reviewed journals that may, nonetheless, be worth investigating. This may be important when researching a topic that is controversial, or one for which the evidence base is weak. If the goal of the research is to provide information for families or colleagues on a treatment team, it may be critical to first gain an understanding of the possible misinformation to which people may have been exposed.

Professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association may have published position statements, whitepapers, or links to resources on their websites. In addition to providing important information, those resources may cite articles you have not yet located. Searches using keywords may yield websites of organizations related to the topic. For example, the Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America (CASANA) has information and webinars on their site about apraxia, which can cooccur with autism. Some professional organizations such as New York Association for Behavior Analysis (NYSABA) have archived presentations from past conferences available to members at no cost. The Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) has a variety of treatment summaries and article reviews freely available on its website. You can also search the websites of BACB approved ACE providers, such as FoxyLearning, Behavior Development Solutions, or ABAskills for webinars or resources related to the topic.

Whatever your reasons for conducting a thorough search of the literature, I hope you find the suggested search methods helpful. How you implement them will depend on your needs and, depending on the nature of your review, you might do only some of the steps that have been suggested. The task analysis for conducting a search of the literature that accompanies this article can be found here.


Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Littleton, CO: Author

Hanley, G. P. (2012). Functional assessment of problem behavior: Dispelling myths, overcoming implementation obstacles, and developing new lore. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 5(1), 54–72.

Iwata, B. A., Dorsey, M. F., Slifer, K. J., Bauman, K. E., & Richman, G. S. (1994). Toward a functional analysis of self-injury. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 27(2), 197–209.

Jessel, J., Hanley, G. P., Ghaemmaghami, M., & Metras, R. (2019). An evaluation of the single‐session interview‐informed synthesized contingency analysis. Behavioral Interventions, 34(1), 62–78.

Citation for this article:

McKenna, K. (2021). Science Corner: Strategies to consider when conducting a comprehensive literature search. Science in Autism Treatment, 18(3).

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