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Learning Objectives

(1) Explain steps in conducting a literature search

(2) Identify resources to utilize in a literature search

(3) Perform an online literature search using U of U Health resources

Valentina is a third year pediatric resident who notices that many of the teenagers she sees in clinic use their phones to play games and connect with friends and family members. She wonders if there could be an app for teenagers to manage their chronic diseases, specifically type 1 diabetes. But where does she begin? 

What is a literature search?

iterature search is a comprehensive exploration of published literature with the purpose of finding scholarly articles on a specific topic . Managing and organizing selected scholarly works can also be useful.

Why do a literature search?

Literature search is a critical component for any evidence-based project. It helps you to understand the complexity of a clinical issue, gives you insight into the scope of a problem, and provides you with best treatment approaches and the best available evidence on the topic. Without this step, your evidence-based practice project cannot move forward.

Five steps for literature search success

There are several steps involved in conducting a literature search. You may discover more along the way, but these steps will provide a good foundation. 

Plan using PICO(T) to develop your clinical question and formulate a search strategy.

Identify a database to search.

Conduct your search in one or more databases.

Select relevant articles .

Organize your results . Remember that searching the literature is a process.

#1: Plan using PICO(T)

The PICO(T) question framework is a formula for developing answerable, researchable questions. Using PICO(T) guides you in your search for evidence and may even help you be more efficient in the process ( Click here to learn all about PICO(T) ). 

Once you have your PICO(T) question you can formulate a search strategy by identifying key words, synonyms and subject headings. These can help you determine which databases to use. 

#2: Identify a database

For your search, you will need to consult a variety of resources to find information on your topic. While some of these resources will overlap, each also contains unique information that you won’t find in other databases.  

The "Big 3" databases: Embase, PubMed, and Scopus are always important to search because they contain large numbers of citations and have a fairly broad scope. ( Click here to access these databases and others in the library's A to Z database.) 

In addition to searching these expansive databases, try one that is more topic specific.

We are here to help.

If you are conducting a literature search and are not certain of the details, don't panic! U of U Health has a wealth of resources, including experienced librarians, to help you through the process. Learn more here. 

Utah’s Epic-embedded librarian support

Did you know you can request evidence-based information from the library directly through Epic?  Contact us through Epic’s Message Basket.

Eccles Health Sciences medical librarians are able to provide expertise in articulating the clinical question, identifying appropriate data sources, and locating the best evidence in the shortest amount of time. You can also send a message to ASK EHSL .

#3: Conduct your search

Now that you have identified pertinent databases, it is time to begin the search!

Use the key words that you’ve identified from your PICO(T) question to start searching. You might start your search broadly, with just a few key words, and then add more once you see the scope of the literature. If the initial search doesn't produce many results, you can play with removing some key words and adding more granular detail.

In our intro case study, Valentina’s population is teenagers with type 1 diabetes and her intervention is a mobile app. Watch the video below to see how Valentina uses the powerful Embase PICO search feature to identify synonyms for type 1 diabetes, mobile apps, and teenagers.

Example of   Embase using PICO Why use Embase? This search casts a wider net than most databases for more results.

Common Search Terms and Symbols

AND Includes both keywords Narrows search OR Either keyword/concept Combine synonyms and similar concepts Expands search "Double quotes"  Specific phrase Wildcard* Any word ending variants (singular, plural, etc.) Example: nurs* = nurse, nurses, nursing, etc.

Controlled Vocabulary

Want to help make your search more accurate? Try using the controlled vocabulary, or main words or phrases that describe the main themes in an article, within databases. Controlled vocabulary is a standardized hierarchical system. For example, PubMed uses Medical Subject Headings or MeSH terms to “map” keywords to the controlled vocabulary. Not all databases use a controlled vocabulary, but many do. Embase’s controlled vocabulary is called Emtree, and CINAHL’s  controlled vocabulary is called CINAHL Headings. Consider focusing the controlled vocabulary as the major topic when using MeSH, Emtree, or CINAHL Headings. 

For Valentina’s question, there are MeSH terms for Adolescent, Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1, and Mobile Applications.

Example of  PubMed using MeSH MeSH helps focus your PubMed search

Talk with your librarians for more help with searching with controlled vocabularies. 

Every database uses filters to help you narrow your search. There are different filters in each database, but they tend to work in similar ways. Use filters to help you refine your search, rather than adding those keywords to the search. Filters include article/publication type, age, language, publication years, and species.

Using filters can help return the most accurate results for your search.

Article/publication types, such as randomized controlled trial, systematic reviews, can be used as filters.

Use an Age Filter, rather than adding “pediatric” or “geriatric” to your search.

Valentina uses the age filter for her question rather than as a keyword in the video below.

Example of a PubMed keyword search using filters PubMed is the most common search because it is the most widely available.

#4: Select relevant articles

Once you have completed your search, you’ll select articles that are relevant to your question. Some databases also include a “similar articles” feature which recommends other articles similar to the article you’re reviewing—this can also be a helpful tool.

When you’ve identified an article that appears relevant to your topic, use the “Snowballing” technique to find additional articles. Snowballing involves reviewing the reference lists of articles from your search. 

In other words, look at your key articles and review their reference list for additional key or seminal articles to aid in your search.

#5: Organize your results

As you begin to collect articles during your literature search, it is important to store them in an organized fashion. Most research databases include personalized accounts for storing selected references and search strategies. 

Reference managers are a great way to not only keep articles organized, but they also generate in-text citations and bibliographies when writing manuscripts, and provide a platform for sharing references with others working on your project.

A number of reference managers—such as Zotero , EndNote , RefWorks, Mendeley , and Papers are available. EndNote Basic (web-based) is freely available to U of U faculty, staff and students. If you need help with this process, contact a librarian to help you select the reference manager  that will best suit your needs.

Using these steps, you’re ready to start your literature search. It is important to remember that there is not a right or wrong way to do the search. Literature searches are an iterative process—it will take some time and negotiation to find what you are looking for. You can always change your approach, or the information resource you are using. The important thing is to just keep trying. And before you get frustrated or give up, contact a librarian . They are here to help!

This article originally appeared May 12, 2020. It was updated to reflect current practice on March 14, 2021.

Tallie Casucci

Barbara wilson.

You have a good idea about what you want to study, compare, understand or change. But where do you go from there? First, you need to be clear about exactly what it is you want to find out. In other words, what question are you attempting to answer? Librarian Tallie Casucci and nursing leaders Gigi Austria and Barb Wilson help us understand how to formulate searchable, answerable questions using the PICO(T) framework.

EBP, or evidence-based practice, is a term we encounter frequently in today’s health care environment. But what does it really mean for the health care provider? College of Nursing interim dean Barbara Wilson and Nurse manager Gigi Austria explain how to integrate EBP into all aspects of patient care.

Frequent and deliberate practice is critical to attaining procedural competency. Cheryl Yang, pediatric emergency medicine fellow, shares a framework for providing trainees with opportunities to learn, practice, and maintain procedural skills, while ensuring high standards for patient safety.

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how do you do a literature search

A literature search is a systematic, thorough search of a range of literature (for example books, peer-reviewed articles, etc.) on your topic. Commonly you will be asked to undertake literature searches as part of your Level 3 and postgraduate study.

It is important before undertaking any research to fully understand the shape of the literature in the area. Literature searching can be broken down into a series of iterative steps. You may want to revisit some of these several times throughout your search.

Planning your search

What to search for: keywords and phrases.

Start the process by clarifying the research question you would like answered. Your next step is to use your research question to help you identify keywords. The language and terminology of your subject area will help you to identify the most effective words for your search.

You can also identify keywords by looking for background information on key areas within your topic online as this will give you ideas for synonyms and other words commonly used.

The activity on  Choosing good keywords  will provide further guidance. 

Where to search: Library Search, Databases and Google Scholar

Now that you have your keywords you need to decide where to search. Library Search is a good starting point, particularly for unfamiliar topics, to provide background information and lead to further sources. 

No two databases include exactly the same content. It is therefore advisable to search several databases to make sure you do not miss a key paper on your topic. If you are unsure where to search, the Selected resources for your study page will help you find the most relevant databases. 

You may also like to use Google Scholar, which will search a wider set of resources, including items not available through the OU Library. Google Scholar  offers more guidance on how to access eresources. It also has instructions on how to add the "Find it at OU" button to Google Scholar search results.

Search techniques

Once you have your keywords you will need to combine them. You can use the help sheet on  Advanced search techniques as guidance. You may also find the following activities useful:

The Library online training session on  Smarter searching with library databases .

The activity on Filtering information quickly .

Further reading:

Byrne, D. (2017).  Developing a researchable question .  Project Planner . Sage Research Methods. DOI:10.4135/9781526408525. 

Byrne, D. (2017). Reviewing the literature .  Project Planner . Sage Research Methods. DOI:10.4135/9781526408518. 

Evaluating information

It is important to evaluate the literature you find for quality and relevance. The PROMPT criteria will help with this. You can consult the  Evaluating the quality of information (requires login)  activity for further guidance.

Organising information

When conducting a literature search recording the information you find in an organised manner is essential. Literature searches require you to read and keep track of many more articles than you would read for an assignment. You may want to try using a bibliographic management tool to help organise the references you have found. The library page on Bibliographic management will help you understand the different tools available.

The Library's Organising information activity will help you understand why it is important to organise information. It will also explain what referencing means and why it is so important.

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how do you do a literature search

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How to do a Literature Search: Introduction

  • Introduction
  • Choosing a database
  • Choosing keywords
  • Using keywords
  • Author searching
  • Managing your search/results

What is a literature review?

how do you do a literature search

You may be asked to write a literature review as part of an undergraduate project or postgraduate dissertation.  A well-conducted literature review will showcase your ability to:

  • Survey the literature and select the most important contributions on your topic
  • Critically evaluate the literature to identify key developments, trends, issues, gaps in knowledge
  • Present your findings in a clear and coherent manner

The structure of a literature review may vary according to your specific subject but it will normally include these three areas:

  • Introduction : an overview of your topic explaining why it is important, putting it in the wider context and perhaps highlighting recent progress and future potential.  It may also explain the scope and the organisation of your review.
  • Main body : a discussion of how research in the topic has progressed to date, critically evaluating the key studies and explaining their significance.  
  • Conclusion : a summary of current knowledge, highlighting any gaps in current knowledge or practice and suggesting how these may be overcome in future research.

Having identified the topic of your review, the first step will be to undertake a literature search .  

What is a literature search?

Define your research question(s).

Before you login to a database to begin your search it's crucial that you analyse your topic, breaking it down into a number of research questions.

Take, for example, this topic:   Are biofuels the answer to falling oil reserves?

You  could  type this sentence into a database search box, but that is usually not helpful, as the sentence may not contain the most appropriate keywords.  Also this single sentence is unlikely to encompass everything that you want to find out.  You need to break down the topic into a number of separate questions and then look for the answers. For this example here are some of the questions you could ask:

  • What is a biofuel?  
  • How are they made?
  • How much of our fuel is already from biofuel (market share)?
  • Could we make enough to replace oil and/or gas?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of using biofuels compared with oil and gas?
  • Could we use biofuels for transport?
  • What is UK government policy relating to biofuels?

You  may  find the answers to all of these questions using a single search engine such as Google Scholar, or a single Library database, but you are more likely to succeed if you match each question to a relevant source .

Introduction to literature searching

Link to literature searching video

Library video (10 minutes)

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  • Next: Choosing a database >>
  • Last Updated: Nov 22, 2022 9:56 AM
  • URL: https://library.bath.ac.uk/literaturesearch

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Literature Review

How to search effectively.

  • Find examples of literature reviews
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1. Identify search words

Analyse your research topic or question.

  • What are the main ideas?
  • What concepts or theories have you already covered?
  • Write down your main ideas, synonyms, related words and phrases.
  • If you're looking for particular types of research, you can use these as search words. E.g. qualitative, quantitative, methodology, review, survey, test, trend (and more).
  • Be mindful of UK and US spelling variations. E.g. organisation OR organization, ageing OR aging.
  • Interactive Keyword Builder
  • Identifying effective keywords via the Learning Co-Op

2. Connect your search words

Find results with one or more search words.

Use OR between words that mean the same thing.

E.g.  adolescent  OR  teenager

This search will find results with either (or both) of the search words.

Find results with two search words

Use AND between words which represent the main ideas in the question.

E.g. adolescent AND “physical activity”

This will find results with both of the search words.

Exclude search words

Use NOT to exclude words that you don’t want in your search results.

E.g. (adolescent OR teenager) NOT “young adult”

3. Use search tricks

Search for different word endings.

Truncation *

The asterisk symbol * will help you search for different word endings.

E.g. teen* will find results with the words: teen, teens, teenager, teenagers

Specific truncation symbols will vary. Check the 'Help' section of the database you are searching.

Search for common phrases

Phrase searching “...........”

Double quotation marks help you search for common phrases and make your results more relevant.

E.g. “physical activity” will find results with the words physical activity together as a phrase.

Search for spelling variations within related terms

Wildcards ?

Wildcard symbols allow you to search for spelling variations within the same or related terms.

E.g. wom?n will find results with women OR woman

Specific wild card symbols will vary. Check the 'Help' section of the database you are searching.

Search terms within specific ranges of each other

Proximity  w/#

Proximity searching allows you to specify where your search terms will appear in relation to each other.

E.g.  pain w/10 morphine will search for pain within ten words of morphine

Specific proximity symbols will vary. Check the 'Help' section of the database you are searching.

4. Improve your search results

All library databases are different and you can't always search and refine in the same way. Try to be consistent when transferring your search in the library databases you have chosen.

Narrow and refine your search results by:

  • year of publication or date range (for recent or historical research)
  • document or source type (e.g. article, review or book)
  • subject or keyword (for relevance). Try repeating your search using the 'subject' headings or 'keywords' field to focus your search
  • searching in particular fields, i.e. citation and abstract. Explore the available dropdown menus to change the fields to be searched.

When searching, remember to:

Adapt your search and keep trying.

Searching for information is a process and you won't always get it right the first time. Improve your results by changing your search and trying again until you're happy with what you have found.

Keep track of your searches

Keeping track of searches saves time as you can rerun them, store references, and set up regular alerts for new research relevant to your topic.

Most library databases allow you to register with a personal account. Look for a 'log in', 'sign in' or 'register' button to get started.

  • Literature review search tracker (Excel spreadsheet)

Manage your references

There are free and subscription reference management programs available on the web or to download on your computer.

  • EndNote - The University has a license for EndNote. It is available for all students and staff, although is recommended for postgraduates and academic staff.
  • Zotero - Free software recommended for undergraduate students.
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  • Next: Where to search when doing a literature review
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How to do a literature search

Before you can write your literature review, you need to find out what’s out there. To do this you need to do a literature search. Here are some tips to get you started.

Define your terms . The first thing to do is to define your topic or research project; or, if you have been given a set question, make sure you understand it. Ask yourself what the key concepts are. Compile a list of keywords – and synonyms for them – and this will help you to develop a research strategy.

Search creatively . When you’ve done this, you need to identify all the relevant information sources. This may include: libraries, indexes and electronic databases, and the Internet.

Use the library . Do you know what’s in your institution’s library that’s relevant to your topic? Make sure you do – it’s an obvious place to start so don’t forget it! Remember that every book and journal published in the UK is held at the British Library and you can do inter-library loans. Ask your library staff for assistance.

Journals . Remember that journals are the best place to find the most recently published research. And don’t forget that many journals are now online only publications.

Newspapers and magazines are a good source for current topical issues, although they are not always very useful for in-depth analysis. For example, if you are writing on a business-related topic you may find useful items in The Economist , Fortune and Harvard Business Review .

Don’t limit yourself to obvious sources . For example, libraries contain books and journals but they also contain unpublished MA and PhD theses that may contain research relevant to your topic. Similarly, make sure you do speculative searches i.e. try typing in ‘The Journal of [Your Topic]’ – you may be surprised what comes up.

Other less obvious sources also include:

Conference papers . These are collections of papers presented at conferences and, like journals, often contain ‘cutting edge’ research. These collections are published on the Internet, in special editions of relevant journals and in one-off books.

National and local Government publications . These include reports, yearbooks, White and Green papers, policy documents, manuals and statistical surveys.

Publishers’ websites . These sites often contain summaries of recent publications and the full-text electronic journals. Two sites that have comprehensive online resources are Emerald and Blackwell Science.

You should also identify and join online discussion lists relevant to your topic. A site like http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk hosts a wide range of discussion lists for the UK academic community. These lists are great ways to contact other people working in your area and are really useful for getting a quick answer to queries like ‘Can anyone recommend a book on X?’ They are also a good way of finding out what’s going on in your subject: people often post details of forthcoming publications, conferences and seminars – sometimes even jobs.

Databases . For many subject areas – particularly sciences and social sciences – there are online databases listing current articles.

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How to Do an Effective Literature Search in 5 Steps

Table of Contents

This article is a quick guide to conducting a literature search. Need help? Hire a literature search expert on Kolabtree. Choose from PhD-qualified researchers in over 2,500 subjects. 

A literature search involves searching and compiling all the literature (books, journals, and more) available on a specific topic. It is carried out to identify knowledge gaps in a particular topic, which will then guide further research in that topic.  It is also carried out to provide background in a study, support methodologies, provide context or comparisons for discussions, and more. One of the most important reasons to do a literature search is to have enough information to formulate a valid research question. A literature search is typically carried out by scientific researchers, academics, R&D personnel of large businesses and organizations, entrepreneurs, healthcare professionals (also called a systematic review ) and by students who have to write a thesis/dissertation (also called a literature review ).

Literature Search: Process Flow  

  • Develop a research question in a specific subject area
  • Make a list of relevant databases and texts you will search
  • Make a list of relevant keywords and phrases
  • Start searching and make notes from each database to keep track of your search
  • Review the literature and compile all the results into a report
  • Revise your original research question if necessary

Literature can be compiled from a variety of sources. A primary source is published, peer-reviewed research available in the form of books and journals. Online databases provide access to published works available on the web. Some examples are Pubmed, which has more than 27 million citations for biomedical literature, PsycINFO has more than 3 million records on psychology topics and Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) has over 1.5 million records of literature related to education research.

How can you make your literature search more effective?

A literature search can be a daunting, tiring and time-consuming task. Since this activity forms the foundation for future research, it is essential for it to be absolutely comprehensive and accurate. Errors in a literature search could mean loss of precious time, resources and energy. You could be carrying out research which has already been done before, using redundant, outdated methodologies, or designing experiments that have shown to be ineffective in the past. 

1. Develop a Well-Defined Question

Starting off a literature review without an clear and focused research question will mean that you will dig up a lot of literature not relevant to what you actually want. So, develop a research question that is:

  • Not too broad and not too narrow in scope
  • Complex enough to allow for research and analysis

2. Choose the Right Keywords

Overlooking the importance of using the right keywords and phrases relevant to the topic means that you could miss important information due to a weak search query.

  • Read papers from different publications to familiarize yourself with the writing style and keywords.
  • Build a concept map of related keywords and phrases that might be related to your research (for example, the related keywords to ‘literature search’ are ‘secondary research’ and ‘systematic review’)

3. Do Not Ignore Non-obvious Sources

Many researchers tend to do a literature search taking into account published literature: journals and books. However, there are other sources that are invaluable, but often overlooked. Look into conference proceedings, ongoing research at university labs (mentioned on university websites), online discussion forums, databases of high-quality pre-print material, and postdoctoral theses.  Examples of non-obvious sources for topic-specific literature:

ClinicalTrials.gov for clinical trial registries, TRIP database for evidence-based clinical information, Open Grey for grey literature SAE Mobilus for technical papers & specifications related to mobility engineering PAIS Index for issues covered in public debate Virtual Health Library for health research in South America arXiv for pre-print material in math, physics , astronomy, and related fields

4. Evaluate Literature for Quality

You’ve got all the literature in place, but how do you know if it’s reliable? Since you’re going to be building your research on this information you need to have some quality control and make sure that sources are credible. Evaluate the credibility of the source by asking these questions:

  • Where was the research published?
  • When was it published?
  • Has it been peer-reviewed?
  • Does the author have good credentials?
  • Is the article free from bias?

A comprehensive list is available here .

5. Redefine Your Question

Now that the literature search is completely, you might be raring to go. But wait! It’s not over yet. At the end of your search, you have to go back to square one: the research question. Is it still relevant and valid? Does it have to be revised?

While doing the literature search, make notes from the “Suggestions for Future Work” in the papers you find relevant and interesting. This will help you formulate your research question better and make the focus of your research clearer.

Outsourcing Your Literature Search

Academics, who are usually already pressed for time, often end up spending weeks just doing a literature search before they can get started on their research. Large companies have in-house scientists who can take on the painstaking task. However, many organizations cannot afford in-house, full-time experts.

Outsourcing your literature search to a subject area expert or experienced researcher can help you save time and energy. Kolabtree has a global team of freelance scientists and academics from the likes of MIT, Cambridge, Oxford and Stanford, who can offer a  literature search service  and can help you prepare customized reports. Leave the task of combing through the literature to a specialist, while you focus on what’s most important to you: your research!

——- Need help with your research or business project? Hire a freelance scientist  on Kolabtree.

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Ramya Sriram manages digital content and communications at Kolabtree (kolabtree.com), the world's largest freelancing platform for scientists. She has over a decade of experience in publishing, advertising and digital content creation.

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How to undertake a literature search


Undertaking a literature search can be a daunting prospect. By breaking the exercise down into smaller steps, you can make the process more manageable. The following ten steps will help you complete the task from identifying key concepts to choosing databases for your search and saving your results and search strategy. It discusses each of the steps in a little more detail with examples and suggestions of where to get help.

There are ten steps to undertaking a literature search which we'll take you through below:

🎬 - Indicates a video is available with more information.

Please click on the boxes below to get a bit more detail on each step.

First, write out your title and check that you understand all the terms. Look up the meaning of any you don’t understand. An online dictionary or medical encyclopaedia may help with this.

If your search is for a dissertation, you may need to choose your own research question. In this case, you will need to consider whether there is likely to be enough research on your topic. Alternatively, if your topic is too broad, you could be overwhelmed by the number of references.

One way of checking how much is written on your topic is to use Library Search. Most libraries offer a Library Search or discovery tool. It provides a quick search across all the library’s holdings. You can also limit your search by date or type of document. If you just need a few references to help you write an essay, Library Search may be helpful. It also gives quick access to full text items.

Next, you need to identify your key concepts. One way to do this is to look at your title and identify the most important words. Ignore words that tell you what to do with the information you find eg evaluate, assess, compare, as these are not generally used as search terms. In the example below, key concepts have been highlighted:

Evaluate the effectiveness of a mindfulness intervention on the health-related quality of life of rheumatoid arthritis patients

Another way to do this is to break down your title using the PEO framework:

P = Population    E = Exposure    O = Outcome 

This works well where there is no comparison between two types of treatment or intervention.

In our example:

P = rheumatoid arthritis patients

E = mindfulness

O =  health related quality of life

Other question formats are available such as PICO or SPIDER

Tip: Not all search topics will include every element of PICO – some include fewer items.

Once you have identified the key concepts, it’s important to think of any other terms or phrases that might have a very similar meaning. Including such synonyms will make your search as thorough as possible. For example, if your topic is looking for articles on Staff attitudes , you might also use the terms:

  • Staff perceptions 
  • Staff opinions
  • Stereotyping
  • Labelling 

If the database you are using has a list of subject heading s , this may help you to find the most appropriate term for your subject. Some databases provide definitions for terms used in the database and may suggest related terms.

A comprehensive search will usually include both subject headings from databases and terms that you have thought of yourself.

Tip: Often your search term will be a phrase instead of a single word. To carry out phrase searches, use double quotes, for example “problem drinking”.

Once you have chosen your search terms, you need to think about the best databases for your topic. The databases you choose will depend on the search question and the libraries you have access to.

Tip: It’s well worth taking a few minutes to get to know the databases available on the Library webpages and what they cover.

The next step is to combine your search terms in such a way that you only retrieve the more relevant references for your search question. In order to do this you need to build a search strategy . This involves using Boolean operators such as AND , OR and NOT .

AND narrows the results of the search by ensuring that all the search terms are present in the results. 

OR broadens the results of the search by ensuring that any of the search terms are present in the results.

NOT limits the results by rejecting a particular search term. Be careful with NOT because it will exclude any results containing that search term regardless of whether other parts of the article might have been of interest.

OR will broaden your number of results while AND will produce fewer results.

Try using this  Search-plan-worksheet   to break your topic down into concepts. These can then be linked together when you run the search. You can also add synonyms within each concept box. The yellow limits box is a prompt to think about any limits you want to apply when searching. This leads us to Step 6.

Tip: Most databases will allow you to use a truncation sign (*) or wildcard (?) to pick up various different endings to words or alternative spellings.

For example:  alcohol* would pick up alcohol, alcoholic, alcoholism, etc

Sm?th would find Smith and Smyth

The next step is to think about any other restrictions you want to make to your results.

Common limiters found on databases include:

  • Peer reviewed articles
  • Research articles
  • Age group (adult, child, older person)
  • Document type

Not all databases allow all of the limiters above.

When writing a dissertation, primary research articles are normally required. Where the database allows you, try limiting to research articles only.

Non-research materials can also be useful as an overview of your topic; for example a literature review can give an analysis of what has already been written on a topic.

The video below includes a demonstration of how limits can be applied using the CINAHL database as an example:

CINAHL - advanced

Once you have identified all your search terms and any limits you want to apply, you are ready to run your search on the databases you have chosen. 

Once you have some search results, you can look through them and start to select those that look relevant to your literature search. It is likely you will reject some because they are not quite what you wanted but there will be others that can be marked for further attention.

The title of an article on its own may not tell you very much; read the abstract quite carefully to see if the article is relevant or not.

Tip: You can show more details for each record by clicking on the article title. On some databases, there may be an abstract for the article which you can open. 

If you find you are either generating more results than you can possibly look at or too few results to write about, be prepared to adjust your search terms and the way they are combined.

If you get too many results you could try: •limiting to just the most recent material •adding another term or concept and linking it using “AND” •limiting to a particular country or geographical area such as UK

If you get too few results, you might try: •expanding your date range •removing any geographical limits you have applied  •removing the least important term or concept

Tip: Be prepared to try other databases and keep searching until you feel confident you have found enough relevant material.

Once you have selected some articles that look relevant for your piece of work, you will need to save them so that your hard work is not wasted.

At the same time, you will want to save your search strategy . This is a record of the terms you searched, how you combined them, any limits you applied and how many results you found.

You will also need to choose a way to save your results. One way is to email the results to yourself and this can be done from all the databases .

Another way is to export your results to reference management software such as Zotero, RefWorks, EndNote or Mendeley. This software allows you to collect, organise and cite research. It is suitable for managing references over a long period of time. 

The RCN Library and Archive Service provides help with using Zotero . 

Tip: Keep a record of all the databases you use as you carry out your search. It is also a good idea to note where you found any references you subsequently use for your dissertation.

The final step is to obtain the full text of the articles identified in your search which you believe may be useful for your assignment. If you are lucky, many of these will be available electronically and you may just be able to follow a link to the full text.

Alternatively you can copy and paste your article title into the Library search box  and if it is available as full text, a hyperlink will be shown which will link you to the document.

If you are studying elsewhere and have access to a university or hospital library, they may subscribe to different journals to the RCN Library so it is worth exploring what they can offer. If your library does not have either an electronic copy or a physical copy, you may need to request the article by interlibrary loan .

Tip: It is also worth using Google or other browsers to check for the article title you require. Sometimes the article has been made freely available on the internet by the authors.

Boolean operators – words (AND, OR and NOT) which can be used to combine search terms in order to widen or limit the search results.

Database – this is an online collection of citations to journal articles which have been indexed to make retrieval easier. Some databases which also provide full text access to the articles.

Limits – these are options within a database which allow search results to be broken down further. Common limits are year(s) of publication, document type and language. MEDLINE and CINAHL allow age limits too.

Search Strategy – the list of search terms and limits used to retrieve relevant articles from a database in order to answer a search question.

Subject headings – terms that have been assigned to describe a concept that may have many alternative keywords. All these alternative keywords or terms are brought together under the umbrella of this single term. Most health-related databases use subject headings.

Additional information

If after following these steps, you still can’t find what you are looking for, remember that there is always help available at your library. The RCN Library and Archives Service offers a range of help materials via our Literature searching and training pages . These include: • Databases guides in electronic and printed formats • Video tutorials on how to search the databases • 1-1 training sessions pre-bookable via the RCN website face to face or via zoom

A subject guide is also available on Doing your dissertation which provides suggestions for key resources, books and journal articles which may help. Click on the link below to access this guide:

Doing your dissertation subject guide

Here are other resources you may also find helpful. You will find links to each resource below too:

  • Aveyard H (2019) Doing a literature review in health and social care: a practical guide . 4th edn. London: Open University Press.
  • Bettany-Satlikov J (2016) How to do a systematic literature review in nursing: a step-by-step guide . 2nd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • Coughlan M and Cronin P (2016) Doing a literature review in nursing, health and social care . 2nd edn. Los Angeles: Sage.
  • De Brún C, Pearce-Smith N, Heneghan C, Perera R and Badenoch D (2014) Searching skills toolkit: finding the evidence . 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell / BMJ Books.
  • Hewitt-Taylor J (2017) The essential guide to doing a health and social care literature review . London: Routledge. 

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How to do a literature search in 6 easy steps

This guide gives you some quick tips on how to run a successful literature search in just six easy steps

This guide provides a range of quick tips on how to run a successful literature search.

An evidence based approach to care

Successful projects are informed by knowledge of the current evidence for that topic. A literature search is an organised and carefully considered approach to finding the latest research. 

This guide gives you some quick tips on how to run a successful literature search. Do talk to your local health library resource for more help in undertaking effective literature searches. Hospice staff can register for an OpenAthens account which provides access to knowledge and library services.

Here are six easy steps to help you get started.

Title How to run a successful literature search:

1. define your search question, 2. think about the search terms to use, 3. decide how to combine the concepts, 4. think about any limits you want to apply, 5. decide which literature databases to use, 6. manage your references.

Every good literature search begins with some thinking about your search topic and how you want to refine it.

For example, you may just want to get an overview of end of life care for people living with frailty. In which case it might be helpful to narrow your search to find systematic reviews on the topic.

Systematic reviews provide clear and comprehensive overviews of the evidence on a particular topic.

Useful databases for systematic review include the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews and the CareSearch collection (palliative care specific). You can also search for published systematic reviews in medicine and health sciences in bibliographic databases such as PubMed (see Tip 5 below for more information about databases to try).

But perhaps you are interested more particularly in advance care planning amongst this population group. Then reframe your topic as a question – for example, ‘Do older people living with frailty at the end of life want to engage in advance care planning conversations?’

Now identify the main concepts of the question. Using the advance care planning example above, there are four major elements:

Older people ; Frailty ; End of life ; Advance care planning .

Now make a list of other phrases or synonyms which could be used to express these concepts. It can be useful to do a quick search on a database and look at articles which seem relevant as they may give you ideas for further terms to use.

Here’s a list of keywords for our example.

Keyword searching means you can search free text words and phrases. If the database you are using gives you the option, be sure to use both keywords and subject headings in your search. Many databases use a standardised list of terms to tag articles (in PubMed, these subject headings are called MeSH). This controlled list of terms (also known as a thesaurus) is a consistent way of describing a concept. Using subject headings can be helpful in finding more results because in clearly identifying a topic, the subject headings can find articles which may not feature your chosen keywords.

Use truncation (usually either one of these symbols: $ or *) to broaden your search and help find variants of a word. For example, Elder* will look for: elder and elderly.

Quote marks will help find a phrase, e.g. “advance care planning”. If you don’t use quote marks for a keyword search, you may find that the database gives you a results list where one or more of the terms appears within a record, so you could end up with lots of results which are not relevant.

Use Boolean operators to combine your search terms. These words used to link concepts are: AND, OR, NOT. Most databases will use buttons so that you can combine the elements of your search.

AND .   Use this to find articles which mention each of the topics you are looking for.

OR .     Use this when you are trying out variants of a term, or where you are happy for any of the concepts to be in the results list.

NOT     Use this to exclude a particular concept. Think carefully about using this option because you could exclude relevant results.

Using Boolean operators means our search could look something like this:

(“advance care plan” OR “advance care planning” OR “anticipatory care planning” OR “anticipatory care plan”) AND (frailty OR frail) AND (“older people” OR elderly OR aged) AND (“end of life” OR death OR dying OR hospice OR palliative)

Commonly used restrictions on literature searches include language , for example, where people want publications written in English only.

Limiting searches to material published within a certain timeframe can also be helpful. Many databases will also let you limit your search in other ways, such as according to publication type (e.g. systematic reviews).

Be sure to apply any limits at the end of your search when you have got a list of results. 

Choose the databases which best match your area of interest. Your local health library will be able to help you access more resources. Here’s a list of some literature databases which are freely available. 

A collection of databases that contain different types of high-quality, independent evidence to inform healthcare decision-making.

Visit Cochrane Library

A curated collection of systematic reviews on topics relevant to palliative care. Subjects cover clinical issues, specific populations, system issues and more.

Visit CareSearch  

A database of more than 35 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books.

Visit PubMed

A database of information and research on all aspects of social care and social work.

Visit Social Care Online

Take some time to get to know reference management software. By using these tools, you can collect references from different databases and save them in one place. They will also enable you to insert references within your work which are formatted according to the reference style that you are using (e.g. Vancouver, Harvard).

Examples of reference management software with free versions include EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero.

Useful resources

Visit elearning for healthcare for a step by step guide to finding information and developing skills for successful searching. This set of learning modules is designed to help the healthcare workforce (clinical and non-clinical) build confidence to search published literature for articles and evidence relevant to their work, study and research.

The modules are short (each taking no more than 20 minutes to complete) and may be ‘dipped into’ for reference, or completed to obtain a certificate.

There are seven modules suitable for novice searchers and those wishing to refresh their knowledge.

Compiled by Melanie Hodson, Head of Information Support, 25 January 2023.

Find resources and research to support Hospices' work with frailty care as part of the Extending Frailty Care grants programme

Extending Frailty Care Programme

Find resources and information to support hospices to deliver frailty attuned models of care.


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