How to undertake a literature search: a step-by-step guide


  • 1 Literature Search Specialist, Library and Archive Service, Royal College of Nursing, London.
  • PMID: 32279549
  • DOI: 10.12968/bjon.2020.29.7.431

Undertaking a literature search can be a daunting prospect. Breaking the exercise down into smaller steps will make the process more manageable. This article suggests 10 steps that will help readers complete this task, from identifying key concepts to choosing databases for the search and saving the results and search strategy. It discusses each of the steps in a little more detail, with examples and suggestions on where to get help. This structured approach will help readers obtain a more focused set of results and, ultimately, save time and effort.

Keywords: Databases; Literature review; Literature search; Reference management software; Research questions; Search strategy.

  • Databases, Bibliographic*
  • Information Storage and Retrieval / methods*
  • Nursing Research
  • Review Literature as Topic*

Literature Searching

In this guide.

  • Introduction
  • Steps for searching the literature in PubMed
  • Step 1 - Formulate a search question
  • Step 2- Identify primary concepts and gather synonyms
  • Step 3 - Locate subject headings (MeSH)
  • Step 4 - Combine concepts using Boolean operators
  • Step 5 - Refine search terms and search in PubMed
  • Step 6 - Apply limits

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Steps for Searching the Literature

Searching is an iterative process and often requires re-evaluation and testing by adding or changing keywords and the ways they relate to each other. To guide your search development, you can follow the search steps below. For more information on each step, navigate to its matching tab on the right menu. 

1. Formulate a clear, well-defined, answerable search question

Generally, the basic literature search process begins with formulating a clear, well-defined research question. Asking the right research question is essential to creating an effective search. Your research question(s) must be well-defined and answerable. If the question is too broad, your search will yield more information than you can possibly look through.

2. Identify primary concepts and gather synonyms

Your research question will also help identify the primary search concepts. This will allow you to think about how you want the concepts to relate to each other. Since different authors use different terminology to refer to the same concept, you will need to gather synonyms and all the ways authors might express them. However, it is important to balance the terms so that the synonyms do not go beyond the scope of how you've defined them.

3. Locate subject headings (MeSH)

Subject databases like PubMed use 'controlled vocabularies' made up of subject headings that are preassigned to indexed articles that share a similar topic. These subject headings are organized hierarchically within a family tree of broader and narrower concepts. In PubMed and MEDLINE, the subject headings are called Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). By including MeSH terms in your search, you will not have to think about word variations, word endings, plural or singular forms, or synonyms. Some topics or concepts may even have more than one appropriate MeSH term. There are also times when a topic or concept may not have a MeSH term. 

4. Combine concepts using Boolean operators AND/OR

Once you have identified your search concepts, synonyms, and MeSH terms, you'll need to put them together using nesting and Boolean operators (e.g. AND, OR, NOT). Nesting uses parentheses to put search terms into groups. Boolean operators are used to combine similar and different concepts into one query. 

5. Refine search terms and search in PubMed

There are various database search tactics you can use, such as field tags to limit the search to certain fields, quotation marks for phrase searching, and proximity operators to search a number of spaces between terms to refine your search terms. The constructed search string is ready to be pasted into PubMed. 

6. Apply limits (optional)

If you're getting too many results, you can further refine your search results by using limits on the left box of the results page. Limits allow you to narrow your search by a number of facets such as year, journal name, article type, language, age, etc. 

Depending on the nature of the literature review, the complexity and comprehensiveness of the search strategies and the choice of databases can be different. Please contact the Lane Librarians if you have any questions. 

The type of information you gather is influenced by the type of information source or database you select to search. Bibliographic databases contain references to published literature, such as journal articles, conference abstracts, books, reports, government and legal publications, and patents. Literature reviews typically synthesis indexed, peer-reviewed articles (i.e. works that generally represent the latest original research and have undergone rigorous expert screening before publication), and gray literature (i.e. materials not formally published by commercial publishers or peer-reviewed journals). PubMed offers a breadth of health sciences literature and is a good starting point to locate journal articles.

What is PubMed?

PubMed is a free search engine accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. Available to the public online since 1996, PubMed was developed and is maintained by the  National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) , at the  U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) , located at the  National Institutes of Health (NIH) .

MEDLINE is the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) premier bibliographic database that contains more than 27 million references to journal articles from more than 5,200 worldwide journals in life sciences with a concentration on biomedicine. The Literature Selection Technica Review Committee (LSTRC) reviews and selects journals for MEDLINE based on the research quality and impact of the journals. A distinctive feature of MEDLINE is that the records are indexed with NLM  Medical Subject Headings  (MeSH).

PubMed also contains citations for  PubMed Central (PMC)  articles. PMC is a full-text archive that includes articles from journals reviewed and selected by NLM for archiving (current and historical), as well as individual articles collected for archiving in compliance with funder policies.  PubMed allows users to search keywords in the bibliographic data, but not the full text of the PMC articles.

how do you do a literature search

How to Access PubMed?

To access PubMed, go to the Lane Library homepage and click PubMed in "Top Resources" on the left. This PubMed link is coded with Find Fulltext @ Lane Library Stanford that links you to Lane's full-text articles online. 

how do you do a literature search

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how do you do a literature search

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 ).

how do you do a literature search

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

how do you do a literature search

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

how do you do a literature search

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: 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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How to Do a Literature Search

Last Updated: April 15, 2023 References

This article was co-authored by Michelle Golden, PhD . Michelle Golden is an English teacher in Athens, Georgia. She received her MA in Language Arts Teacher Education in 2008 and received her PhD in English from Georgia State University in 2015. This article has been viewed 22,213 times.

A literary search is an important part of any research work. It allows you to have a comprehensive listing of relevant sources on a given topic. It also forces you to figure out how these sources are relevant to your goals as a researcher, giving you a more informative and educated sense of where your research falls in the academic community. To do a literary search, start with some planning. You'll need to specify your topic and figure out what and where to search. From there, do extensive research and find a variety of sources. Write up summaries of the sources, while making connections between them, and then proofread your search and look for any places where additional research may be necessary.

Planning Your Search

Step 1 Specify your topic.

  • If you're doing a literature search for a class, you may have a broad topic to explore in that class. For example, it may be a literature course focusing on Shakespeare. The topic Shakespeare, however, is far too broad.
  • You'll have to find a field of literary theory, as well as a subject within Shakespeare, through which to explore the topic. For example, maybe you want to focus on the play Hamlet . You may want to look into the philosophies of relativism and existentialism in the play. Your topic could be something like, "relativism and existentialism in Hamlet" instead of just "Shakespeare."

Step 2 Choose your search words.

  • You'll want to use as many different search words as possible to find an extensive list of sources. It can help to break down your topic and think of synonyms for each relevant word. For example, say your topic is, "Changing portrayals of women in independent film in American culture." Keywords that pop out are "women," "independent film," and "American culture."
  • Think of synonyms for each these terms you can use to search. Synonyms for "American culture," for example, may include things like "United States culture" or "US culture." Synonyms for "independent film" could include something like, "mumblecore film" or "indie film."
  • You should also think about the kinds of topics that may be addressed within your topic. For example, you could search something like, "female archetypes" or "female tropes." You could also search a particular trope or archetype that's been critiqued by film critics. You may want to search for something like, "mother figure" or "manic pixie dream girl."

Step 3 Do some background reading.

  • You'll need a combination of sources for any research project, so be open to a wide variety of material. Usually, for academic research, academic journals published through universities are a good place to start. There are general academic journals, and also journals specific to a single field.
  • You should also be open to some less academic sources, if it feels appropriate. For example, topical articles on film written by journalists may help supplement academic research if your topic is women in independent film. This can help showcase how attitudes towards female characters are changing, and how the voices of critics shape the trajectory of the film industry.

Step 5 Consider how many sources you may need.

  • Keep in mind that you will have to consult more sources than you will end up using. [2] X Research source For example, you may find around 40 good sources in a database search, but you may only be able to access 20 of those sources in the time frame you need. Then of those 20 sources, you may only find that 12 of them really suit your topic.
  • Check with your instructor as well. Some college writing assignments will have a minimum source requirement. If the guidelines for your paper are unclear, then just ask.

Conducting Research

Step 1 Search through an online library.

  • Many online libraries have the advantage of pointing you to texts that exists in libraries outside of your region. Depending on library policy, you may be able to order these books from faraway libraries.
  • In the event you cannot order a book from a remote library, see if you can take out an electronic copy from an online library or find the source at another nearby library.

Step 2 Go to a university or local library.

  • Bring your list of keywords to an online library. You can enter your search terms into the computers at the library, which will link to an electronic card system that shows where you can find relevant resources in that location.
  • You can ask a librarian for help. Librarians are valuable resources and may be able to offer you search tips that will be helpful to your research.

Step 3 Research online with caution.

  • Instead of using a generic google search, use something like Google Scholar which will link you to academic citations.
  • You may also be able to find databases online that contain many academic sources. Online databases like JSTOR and Academic One File, for example, can be good places. Keep in mind, however, you need a subscription for a lot of these types of sources. If you're currently a student, you may have access through your college or university.

Step 4 Read your sources and take notes.

  • As you read, pay attention to the authors' main ideas. Jot down the central themes of each work, as well as the evidence the author uses to support those themes.
  • Look for any flaws in the work. Does the author seem to have any biases that are cropping up? Is the author examining the issue from every possible angle? If you notice any flaws, write them down.
  • If you see a particular article or author mentioned across several works, you may want to read a bit by this author. When doing a literature search, you want to incorporate as many influential texts on the subject as possible.

Step 5 Use your sources to find additional sources.

  • Depending on the documentation style that the author used, the source may be provided within the text, at the bottom or the page, or at the end of the book or article.
  • When you find a source you would like to use, take a moment to write down relevant information about the source, such as the author’s name, the title, and the date it was published.
  • Keep in mind that it is important to locate the original text and read it yourself before you decide to quote it. Quoting a source within a source is not a good idea because you will not have the full context behind the information.

Step 6 Track citations.

  • Follow the citation style recommended by your instructor or commonly used in your field. You'll typically be using either MLA citations or APA citations.
  • If you're unsure how to cite a source, you can use resources like EasyBib to cite the source for you. However, you should double check when you're done to make sure the source was cited corrected.

Assembling Your Materials

Step 1 Decide how to organize your search.

  • You could order the review in chronological order, placing the earliest sources first. This may be helpful if you're tracking the history of a subject and how it's changed over time.
  • You could also organize the review by trend or topic. This is particularly helpful if you're examining several schools of thought. Returning to the Shakespeare example, you could group writings on relativism in one section, writings on existentialism in another, and so on.
  • For more scientific research, you could organize by method. This means splitting up sources by the methods in which research was conducted. For example, one section focuses on double-blind studies while the other focuses on blind studies.

Step 2 Write a brief...

  • Be careful not to use too many quotes. In literature searches, extensive quoting is uncommon.
  • Make sure to use your own voice. You want to avoid sounding like you're plagiarizing or imitating a source.

Step 3 Explain the source's relevance to your project.

  • Explain how a source is important to the ideas you're trying to express. You should not just summarize the sources. Synthesize them into your work as well.
  • If one source is supplemental to another, link them in the review. For example, you may include a film review blasting the manic pixie dream girl trop.
  • Explain how this review conveys an argument made in an academic paper about viewers craving more realistic female characters.

Step 4 Cut out sources if you have too much.

  • You can make sure to avoid bad sources by limiting searching to journal database, online libraries, and physical libraries.
  • If you do use an online source, sources that end in .edu or .ac tend to be more academic in nature.

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Researcher skills, literature searching explained.

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1. What is a literature search?

2. Decide the topic of your search

3. Identify the main concepts in your question

4. Choose a database

What is a literature search?

A literature search is a considered and organised search to find key literature on a topic. To complete a thorough literature search you should:

  • define what you are searching for
  • decide where to search
  • develop a search strategy
  • refine your search strategy
  • save your search for future use.

For background reading or an introduction to a subject, you can do a shorter and more basic  Library search .

Use this guide to work your way through the all the stages of the literature searching process.

You should form a search question before you begin. Reframing your research project into a defined and searchable question will make your literature search more specific and your results more relevant.

Decide the topic of your search

You should start by deciding the topic of your search. This means identifying the broad topic, refining it to establish which particular aspect of the topic interests you, and reframing that topic as a question.

For example:

Broad topic:  active learning and engagement in higher education

Main focus topic:  international students and online learning

Topic stated as a question:  "What is the role of active learning in improving the engagement of international students during online learning?"

Identify the main concepts in your question

Once you have a searchable question, highlight the major concepts. For example: "What is the role of  active learning  in improving the  engagement  of  international students  during  online learning ?"

You should then find keywords and phrases to express the different concepts. For example, the concept “active learning” covers a wide range of key terms, including student-based learning, problem solving and paired discussion.

It may be useful to create a concept map. First identify the major concepts within your question and then organise your appropriate key terms.

If you are researching a medicine or health related topic then you might want to use a PICO search model. PICO helps you identify the Patient, Intervention, Comparison and Outcome concepts within your research question.

P atient: Who is the treatment being delivered to? What is happening to the patient?

I ntervention: What treatment is being delivered? What is happening to the patient?

Comparison: How much better is the procedure than another? What are the alternatives?

Outcome: How is the effect measured? What can be achieved?

List synonyms for each concept. You may wish to include variant spellings or endings (plural, singular terms). Exclude parts of the PICO that do not relate to your search question. For example, you may not be drawing any comparisons in your research.

Choose a database

Subject-specific databases are the most effective way to search for journal articles on a topic. However, you can also search the Library for common information sources, such as government documents, grey literature, patents and statistics.

Find the most appropriate databases for your subject

Databases help you to find a broad range of evidence, including peer-reviewed academic articles from all over the world, from many different publishers, and over a long time period.

Databases such as Scopus and Web of Science hold expansive records of research literature, including conference proceedings, letters and grey literature.

Many databases have links to full-text articles where the Library has a subscription.

Other information sources

Go to your  subject-specific page  to see the most appropriate information sources listed for your subject area. You may need to explore more than one subject page if your topic is multi-disciplinary.

You may find it useful to make a list of which information sources you want to search to find information for your research;  a search activity template (DOCX)  can help you do this.

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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 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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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

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  • UOW Library
  • Key guides for students

Literature Review

How to search effectively.

  • Find examples of literature reviews
  • How to write a literature review
  • Grey literature

Follow our suggested steps below.

We also have an introductory Literature searching interactive tutorial that includes self-paced guided activities to help you as you learn more about the literature searching process.

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

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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Best Practice for Literature Searching

  • Literature Search Best Practice

What is literature searching?

  • What are literature reviews?
  • Hierarchies of evidence
  • 1. Managing references
  • 2. Defining your research question
  • 3. Where to search
  • 4. Search strategy
  • 5. Screening results
  • 6. Paper acquisition
  • 7. Critical appraisal
  • Further resources
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Literature searching is the task of finding relevant information on a topic from the available research literature. Literature searches range from short fact-finding missions to comprehensive and lengthy funded systematic reviews. Or, you may want to establish through a literature review that no one has already done the research you are conducting. If so, a comprehensive search is essential to be sure that this is true.

Whatever the scale, the aim of literature searches is to gain knowledge and aid decision-making.  They are embedded in the scientific discovery process. Literature searching is a vital component of what is called "evidence-based practice", where decisions are based on the best available evidence.

What is "literature"?

Research literature writes up research that has been done in order to share it with others around the world. Far more people can read a research article than could ever visit a particular lab, so the article is the vehicle for disseminating the research.  A research article describes in detail the research that's been done, and what the researchers think can be concluded from it.   

It is important, in literature searching, that you search for  research literature .  Scientific information is published in different formats for different purposes: in  textbooks  to teach students; in  opinion  pieces, sometimes called  editorials  or  commentaries , to persuade peers; in  review articles  to survey the state of knowledge.  An abundance of other literature is available online, but not actually published (by an academic publisher)--this includes things like  conference proceedings ,  working papers, reports  and  preprints .  This type of material is called grey (or gray) literature . 

Most of the time what you are looking for for your literature review is research literature (and not opinion pieces, grey literature, or textbook material) that has been published in  scholarly peer reviewed journals .

As expertise builds, using a greater diversity of literature becomes more appropriate.  For instance, advanced students might use conference proceedings in a literature review to map the direction of new and forthcoming research. The most advanced literature reviews, systematic reviews, need to try to track down unpublished studies to be comprehensive, and a great challenge can be locating not only relevant grey literature, but studies that have been conducted but not published anywhere.  If in doubt, always check with a teacher or supervisor about what type of literature you should be including in your search.   

Why undertake literature searches?

By undertaking regular literature searches in your area of expertise, or undertaking complex literature reviews, you are:

  • Able to provide context for and justify your research
  • Exploring new research methods
  • Highlighting gaps in existing research
  • Checking if research has been done before
  • Showing how your research fits with existing evidence
  • Identifying flaws and bias in existing research
  • Learning about terminology and different concepts related to your field
  • Able to track larger trends
  • Understanding what the majority of researchers have found on certain questions.
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How to: systematic review literature searching

Searching literature is one of the most important elements of a systematic review. A well planned search strategy in the right databases ensures you have a robust list of results to whittle down as part of your PRISMA workflow. We’ve answered some of the common questions we get asked about searching literature as part of a systematic review. Take a look – have we missed anything?

How do you do a literature search for a systematic review?

The literature search element of a systematic review is the next step after you’ve created a well-defined question that the systematic review itself is trying to answer.

Best-practice is to perform your literature search across at least three separate databases. The two most common are Embase and MEDLINE, with the third (and fourth and fifth!) varying depending on the subject area of your systematic review. Additional databases can include sources of grey literature like or databases of systematic reviews such as Cochrane (with a lot of Cochrane content being available in both Embase and MEDLINE).

Your literature search needs to use a well-constructed and thorough search strategy. Following a framework like PICO (Problem, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) or SPIDER (Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type) can help you ensure you’re not missing anything. It can also help to use a database search platform that allows you to save and edit your searches. This can make it easier to demonstrate your search strategy is truly reproducible and exhaustive.

Your search strategy will also benefit from using Embase and MEDLINE’s thesauri to refine your search keywords. Using medical synonyms (like those built into  Dialog ) can also be helpful, both for saving your time and ensuring you’re not missing out on any common synonyms for your search terms.

And as a final point, make sure you’re able to refine your results consistently across all the databases you’re using. This is easier if you’re using a single platform to search multiple databases as you can limit date ranges, publications, author, etc. with a single click, rather than trying to do this consistently across individual databases.

What databases are used for systematic reviews?

The databases you choose for your systematic review literature search should be as extensive as possible to avoid any potential publication bias. At the very least, most people agree that MEDLINE and Embase have to be included within your systematic review literature search. You should also choose specific databases related to the topic of your systematic review question (such as PsycINFO for psychological-focused studies or ESPICOM  for  systematic reviews looking at medical devices). Cochrane also recommends you include its Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) database in your search if you want your systematic review to eventually appear in CENTRAL.

It is also a good idea to use grey literature within your list of sources. Some useful databases for grey literature and pre-print content include the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses and the Morressier database of conference posters.

What is PRISMA for systematic reviews?

PRISMA stands for Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses and is a set of guidelines designed to improve the quality of systematic reviews.

PRISMA includes a 27 item checklist that covers everything from the report title and abstract to declaring competing interests and support (you can access it on PRISMA’s website  here ). There is also a PRISMA workflow that can help narrow down the results of your systematic review literature searches in an objective and repeatable way (access the flowchart on PRISMA’s website  here ).

How many databases should be searched for a systematic review?

At least three databases should be used for systematic review literature searches. As explained above, the most common are Embase and MEDLINE, with the third database being chosen based on the subject area of the systematic review.

Additional databases can be used to provide sources of grey literature, such as pre-print working papers, dissertations and theses and conference papers and posters.

What is grey literature for a systematic review?

Grey literature is any content that is considered unpublished in the sense it doesn’t appear through traditional publishing channels (i.e. peer-reviewed databases). As a result grey literature covers a very wide range of content types and sources and can include:

  • Conference posters
  • Conference abstracts and proceedings
  • Pre-print / working papers
  • Dissertations and theses
  • Clinical studies

Can you include grey literature in a systematic review?

Grey literature can be a very important resource in systematic reviews as it can provide extra evidence and sources outside of the main databases and journals. While it can be harder to find grey literature (unless you’re searching databases that specifically contain grey literature content), it can help a systematic review be more balanced and thorough.

The main drawback with grey literature is ensuring the quality and objectivity of the content, as it won’t necessarily have been reviewed in the same way as content from the main publication sources.

How do you find grey literature for a systematic review?

There are a number of databases that contain grey literature, including ProQuest Dissertations & Theses, Publicly Available Content, and Morressier. If you’re doing a systematic review literature search on Dialog these databases can be added alongside MEDLINE and Embase as part of your search process.

How do you develop a search term for a systematic review?

To develop a search strategy for a systematic review, we recommend the following approach:

  • i.e. Can antibiotics help alleviate the symptoms of a sore throat?
  • Choose the most appropriate databases (MEDLINE, Embase and SciSearch, for example) and identify the most cost-effective and efficient way to search and access this content (such as a database search platform like Dialog)
  • P opulation/ P roblem  –  sore throat
  • I ntervention  –  antibiotics
  • C omparison  –  e.g. anti-inflammatories, placebo
  • O utcomes  –  alleviation, therapeutic effect
  • Then decide what content you will include and exclude
  • Use thesauri to find preferred terms and explosions in MEDLINE and Embase
  • Use thesaurus subheadings to refine terms in MEDLINE and Embase
  • Use medical synonyms to increase recall of free text terms

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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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  3. How To Do Literature Search And Review Effectively?

  4. What is Literature??

  5. What is literature??

  6. Can AI Take Over the Literature Search? Testing ChatGPT's Scientific Discovery Powers!


  1. How to undertake a literature search: a step-by-step guide

    Mandy Watson 1 Affiliation 1Literature Search Specialist, Library and Archive Service, Royal College of Nursing, London. PMID: 32279549 DOI: 10.12968/bjon.2020.29.7.431 Abstract Undertaking a literature search can be a daunting prospect.

  2. How to carry out a literature search for a systematic review: a

    Literature reviews are conducted for the purpose of (a) locating information on a topic or identifying gaps in the literature for areas of future study, (b) synthesising conclusions in an area of ambiguity and (c) helping clinicians and researchers inform decision-making and practice guidelines.

  3. Steps for searching the literature in PubMed

    Generally, the basic literature search process begins with formulating a clear, well-defined research question. Asking the right research question is essential to creating an effective search. Your research question (s) must be well-defined and answerable.

  4. How to Do an Effective Literature Search in 5 Steps

    1. Develop a Well-Defined Question 2. Choose the Right Keywords 3. Do Not Ignore Non-obvious Sources 4. Evaluate Literature for Quality 5. Redefine Your Question Outsourcing Your Literature Search This article is a quick guide to conducting a literature search. Need help? Hire a literature search expert on Kolabtree.

  5. Step 4: Your Literature Search

    Your search strategy for identifying appropriate research and literature for your literature review will change depending on your topic, the type of research you are conducting, the manuscript you plan to write, and the particular resource/database you are searching.

  6. PDF Doing a literature search: a step by step guide

    A good literature search entails systematically working through steps 1-5: 1, Background reading and preparation 2, Working with your title - identifying search terms 3, Identifying the resources to search 4, Searching - using search techniques 5, Collating your results Let's take a look at these 5 stages in detail:

  7. How to Do a Literature Search (with Pictures)

    Part 1 Planning Your Search 1 Specify your topic. To start your literature review, you'll need to narrow down your topic. You probably already have a broad topic in mind. Take some time to figure out what aspect of that topic you want to focus on in your search.

  8. How do I 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.

  9. Literature Searching Explained

    To complete a thorough literature search you should: define what you are searching for. decide where to search. develop a search strategy. refine your search strategy. save your search for future use. For background reading or an introduction to a subject, you can do a shorter and more basic Library search.

  10. How to do a literature search

    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.

  11. How to do a Literature Search: Top Tips for Researchers

    Defining the keywords or key phrases for your scientific literature search is a crucial step since it will determine how broad, narrow, and relevant your search results will be. Make a list of multiple keywords specific to your area of interest. Use Boolean searches (e.g., with "and" and "or" operators) to refine your literature search process.

  12. How to Conduct a Literature Search

    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.

  13. Guides: Literature Review: How to search effectively

    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.

  14. Learning to successfully search the scientific and medical literature

    Here, five steps are outlined and discussed to facilitate effective literature searching. Keywords: Literature, Search, Database, Publication, Autoalert, Citation mining, Search strategy. Rapidly and thoroughly understanding published literature in a new area of research is a challenge for graduate students in the life sciences, medical ...

  15. LibGuides: Best Practice for Literature Searching: What is literature

    Literature searching is the task of finding relevant information on a topic from the available research literature. Literature searches range from short fact-finding missions to comprehensive and lengthy funded systematic reviews. Or, you may want to establish through a literature review that no one has already done the research you are conducting.

  16. Your Literature Search

    For literature reviews within a paper, you will likely at least want to search an important subject database and a citation tracking database. Subject Research Guides can help you identity important subject databases. Web of Science and Google Scholar are citation tracking databases. For systematic/semi-systematic literature reviews, you will ...

  17. Conducting a winning literature search

    A. Constructing an appropriate question. Asking the right question is the primary key to creating a winning search. Your questions must be answerable. If your question is too broad, your search will yield more information than you can possibly look through.

  18. Literature search for research planning and identification of research

    Literature search is a key step in performing good authentic research. It helps in formulating a research question and planning the study. The available published data are enormous; therefore, choosing the appropriate articles relevant to your study in question is an art. It can be time-consuming, tiring and can lead to disinterest or even ...

  19. How to: systematic review literature searching

    Searching literature is one of the most important elements of a systematic review. A well planned search strategy in the right databases ensures you have a robust list of results to whittle down as part of your PRISMA workflow. We've answered some of the common questions we get asked about searching literature as part of a systematic review.

  20. How to do a Literature Search: Introduction

    How to do a Literature Search: Introduction Managing your search/results What is a literature review? 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:

  21. How to Perform a Literature Search

    Steps of a literature search Step 1: Define your research question The first step is to know exactly what question you want to answer. A common mistake is to attempt to conduct your literature search before you have a basic grasp of your topic area.

  22. How to Write a Literature Review

    Step 1 - Search for relevant literature Step 2 - Evaluate and select sources Step 3 - Identify themes, debates, and gaps Step 4 - Outline your literature review's structure Step 5 - Write your literature review Free lecture slides Other interesting articles Frequently asked questions Introduction Quick Run-through Step 1 & 2 Step 3 Step 4 Step 5

  23. How to undertake a literature search

    Steps. Please click on the boxes below to get a bit more detail on each step. + STEP 1: Think about your search question 🎬. + STEP 2: Identify your key concepts. + STEP 3: Think about synonyms. + STEP 4: Choose the most appropriate databases to search. + STEP 5: Combine your search terms. Concept 1. Concept 2.

  24. Research Guides: Grey Literature: Searching for Grey Literature

    Again, Google Advanced Search has many different search fields available in this Advanced Search. Another important area to point out for researching Grey Literature is the file type. You can limit search results to only one file format, such as .pdf or .xls, by choosing a specifier on the Advanced Search page.

  25. Getting started

    What is a literature review? Definition: A literature review is a systematic examination and synthesis of existing scholarly research on a specific topic or subject. Purpose: It serves to provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of knowledge within a particular field. Analysis: Involves critically evaluating and summarizing key findings, methodologies, and debates found in ...

  26. 'It depends': what 86 systematic reviews tell us about what strategies

    We developed a comprehensive systematic literature search strategy based on the terms used in the previous reviews to identify studies that looked explicitly at interventions designed to turn research evidence into practice. The search was performed in June 2022 in four electronic databases: Medline, Embase, Cochrane and Epistemonikos.

  27. Research Guides: Literature Reviews: Concept Mapping

    A concept map or mind map is a visual representation of knowledge that illustrates relationships between concepts or ideas. It is a tool for organizing and representing information in a hierarchical and interconnected manner. At its core, a concept map consists of nodes, which represent individual concepts or ideas, and links, which depict the relationships between these concepts.