Literature Searching

Overview and tips on how to conduct a literature search.

Choosing a database(s) and Executing the Search

After building your search strategy, it is time to test it out.

The literature search should be exhaustive enough to develop a comprehensive list of potentially relevant articles. Select core and specialized databases to search. The databases selected will depend on the topic to be searched.

Use the U Libraries find databases by subject  feature found in the database A-Z lists  to determine which databases will be the most useful for your research question/topic.  In addition to the subject specialized databases, try out the more interdisciplinary databases such as Academic Search Primer, Scopus or Web of Knowledge.

Tailor the Search Strategy to the Database

Take the time to understand how each interface works to maximize your search experience.

Be aware that database vendors or providers may have different search interfaces - EBSCO has Academic Search Primer, Business Source Primer & CINAHL, National Library of Medicine provides PubMed & Medline, ProQuest for Agricola & ERIC, while OVID provides the Ovid Medline & Embase interface.  You can find database user guides in the following places:

University Libraries Use Library Databases Tutorial

Health Sciences Library Database guides

When selecting a database to search, pay attention to whether or not the content is peer-reviewed and contains only academic or scholarly publications or does it also index dissertations, book chapters or trade journal articles.  Some databases allow you to filter for peer-reviewed and scholarly content. 

Conducting a literature search

It is good practice to search for each concept as a separate set and start off with using subject headings/controlled vocabulary, if available. Creating separate sets for each part of your topic allows you to combine and recombine results using the Boolean operators AND and OR to modify your strategy as you search and review your results.

Search On Separate Lines

Generally when you are starting out a literature search, you want to be as broad as possible since you don’t know how many results your search strategy will initially retrieve.

After trying out your search strategy, take a look at your search results. Are any of the articles right on target? Did you get too many? Too few? Nowhere near your topic at all? This is where you may need to refine your search, if necessary. Try steps 1-5 over again. You may need to either broaden your search concepts,  narrow them or re-think your research question. Also try checking the subject headings in the “closest fit” article to see what subject headings were used for that and make note of any keywords that you see that you may not have thought of.

If there are other similar concepts that may also retrieve relevant articles, you can add them to the search using OR.

For example, for the research question about breast cancer and genetic testing, a related concept may be the ethics around genetic counseling, which then can be OR’ed with genetic testing/ethics and then the resulting set can be AND’ed with breast cancer

Once you have figured out the best strategy with the subject terms and keywords, you can add the date, age, language or publication limits if needed.

Last Updated: Feb 7, 2024 1:26 PM