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Literature searching explained

What is literature searching.

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.

We provide a literature searching service for University of Leeds researchers, to support research aligned with the University’s strategic priorities.

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

Affiliation.

  • 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.

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Best Practice for Literature Searching

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What is literature searching?

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  • 1. Managing references
  • 2. Defining your research question
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  • 5. Screening results
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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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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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Literature Searching

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Major Steps in a Literature Search

It's a good idea to plan your search in advance.  This will help you to find resources more quickly and easily, and will save you time in the long run.

There are several steps involved in conducting a literature search. The most common major steps in a literature search are:

  • Create a well-defined research or topic question
  • Brainstorm to gather subject terms, keywords and synonyms
  • Construct the search strategy
  • Select database(s) to search
  • Tailor the search strategy to the selected database(s)
  • Then, conduct the search and repeat as necessary

Literature searches are an iterative process. You may discover new keywords and articles through the references and citations that you find.

Keep track and document all of the subject terms or keywords used and all of the search strategies that you use as you may want or need to re-use a successful search strategy.

Make sure to document or keep track of all of the articles you identify as relevant to your topic/research question. This will save you time and frustration later when you want to find those references or article citations again when you need to cite references for your literature review.

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Welcome to this module about how to find what you need when searching academic literature

what is literature search in library

  • Planning your search - working out what you want to look for and where you might find it
  • Carrying our your search - using different resources to find materials on your research topic
  • Evaluating your search and results - deciding if you have found what you need and how they are relevant to your research
  • Managing your results - using tools and alerts manage what you have now and what interesting new research might be coming out
  • Keeping up to date - using tools to keep up to date with new literature as it is produced and published

Academic information can take many forms such as textbooks, journal articles, datasets, software and much more. In this module we will be focusing on searching for journal articles through different services, including the many academic databases that are available to members of the University of Cambridge. As every discipline will have slightly different ways of sharing and talking about research, we will be covering the fundamental skills around searching the literature. For more subject-specialist help, seek out the relevant library team via our Libraries Directory listings .

To complete this section, you will need:

what is literature search in library

  • Approximately 60 minutes.
  • Access to the internet. All the resources used here are available freely.
  • Some equipment for jotting down your thoughts, a pen and paper will do, or your phone or another electronic device.

Planning your search

As tempting as it is to start searching, it is important to take some time to plan out your search first, as spending a few minutes making a plan at the start will help you find all the relevant information as efficiently as possibly. There are a range of different techniques you can use for finding the information you need. Considering the techniques you will use and where you will use them can be described as developing or creating a "Search Strategy". Watch this video from the Engineering Library to learn how to create a great search strategy.  

Activity - Building your search strategy

Now you have had a chance to think about planning a search strategy, you could think about developing a search strategy for your own research question using our Search Strategy tool . This tool aims to provide prompts for you to build your search strategy to help plan your literature searching. At the end of the activity you will be given the option to email your search strategy to yourself so you have a copy to work from as you progress with your research.

Carrying out your search

Now you have a plan for searching, you can start putting your keywords into a database to see what you find. Remember, what you want to find will influence where you look for it. There are many databases available that cover many different disciplines at once, and others that focus down onto one specific area so consider using several resources together to get really good coverage of your topic.

One good interdisciplinary databases is Scopus. In this video by the Lee Library (Wolfson College), you’ll see the principles we've discussed so far applied in practice. Please note that many databases change how they look from time so if Scopus has changed since you watched this video, the essentials will be the same. 

Searching the grey literature

Sometimes you will be working on research that needs you to find what can sometimes be referred to as 'grey literature'. In a nutshell, this kind of literature is anything that has not been produced by a commercial publisher. It can include almost anything including working papers, reports published by government departments, theses and much more. Find these sorts of resources through academic databases is almost impossible as they are often not indexed there. However, many of us have a tool at our fingertips that we use daily to find information - Google!

Google is a very effective search tool, even though it still only indexes a very small proportion of the overall internet. There are techniques to get Google searching to work for you rather than you fighting against its algorithms. Find out more in video from the Biological Sciences Libraries Team!

Knowledge check - what have you remembered so far?

We've covered a lot so you can undertake a quick knowledge check . Answer the questions to see how much you've remembered. If you're not sure about a question, you can revisit the earlier sections to refresh your knowledge

Evaluating your search

Now you've been searching for a little while, it might be worthwhile going back to your original search strategy plan to see if it needs tweaking. What sort of results have you been getting?

You might want to consider the following questions as part of this review:

  • Are the results different to what you expected?  Why might this be?
  • Do you need to refine the search including additional keywords or using post-search filters like dates or topic?  
  • Are you getting too few results and do you need to broaden the search? 
  • Is the database suitable for this search, or would there be a more appropriate alternative?  

If you are struggling to answer any of these questions, it might be a good time to seek out a subject specialist. As a reminder, you can find a comprehensive listing of the various libraries dotted around the University of Cambridge with many knowledgeable people working within them who will be able to help.

Critically evaluating your results

Even if your search is as good as you can get it right now, and you're definitely using the best resource for your topic, have you taken some time to review the quality of your results? The concept of quality is incredibly subjective, especially depending on your research area. While some people may consider peer review to be a good indicator of rigorous research, others may be more sceptical of it as an overall process.

Consider using a critical evaluation framework to assess what research results you're finding and you can start answering questions around the relevance and quality of a particular piece of work according to your own individual criteria. There are many frameworks out there and the Biological Sciences Libraries Team have a short video looking at one of these called PROMPT from the Open University.

Managing your results

Once you have a set of results that you want to save and keep so you can use them with your research moving forward, managing those resources is a critical next step to ensure that you have them easily to hand and do not lose them at any point during your work. We would strongly recommend that you consider investing in a reference manager to do a lot of this work for you. In essence, a reference manager will help you save results as you work with options for cloud storage of articles, exporting as formatted references for bibliographies and much more!

There are a wide range of reference manager tools out there, with several being free to use, so while we may recommend a few do explore the options yourself to get something that works for you. For an overview of some of the main tools, please visit our Good Academic Practice guide for more information.

Keeping up to date

So far we have considered situations where you are researching a topic at a particular point in time, yet as a researcher you will also need to keep informed about new developments in your field. How can you make sure you capture important new research in the limited time you have available? 

With alerts and other such things, there are many options available, some of which we cover in our next video.

Further Resources

We have covered a lot of different things in this module, many of which can be expanded upon and gone into in a lot of depth with a subject expert so here are some resources for you to explore further.

For a complete list of all of the academic databases and resources that the University of Cambridge subscribes to, visit our A-Z Database guide

Visit our dedicated guide on carrying out a systematic review for specialist advice from the Medical Library team

For a comprehensive list of subject libraries across the University of Cambridge , visit our Libraries Directory to find someone to help you with your literature searching needs

There are many training opportunities for researchers across the University of Cambridge, with many sessions advertised on the University Training Booking System . Check it out to see if there is a literature searching session in your research area happening soon. If you can't find one that is relevant to you, ask a subject librarian if they have anything available.

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what is literature search in library

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what is literature search in library

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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?

what is literature search in library

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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  • Last Updated: Nov 22, 2022 9:56 AM
  • URL: https://library.bath.ac.uk/literaturesearch
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Literature Search Basics

How can the library help, class recording: literature search basics, what is a literature search.

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The Research Medical Library is here for MD Anderson faculty, staff and students.

Writing a review? Need help? Schedule an online consultation with a librarian or editor.

Our Scientific Editors perform both substantive and copy editing of grant proposals, journal articles, and other reports of original research written by MD Anderson physicians and scientists for the professional literature, funding agencies, and other external (non-MD Anderson) audiences. 

Our librarians can provide expert searching for clinical or academic research, and hospital administration. This service is available to the faculty and staff at MD Anderson.

https://mdanderson.libwizard.com/f/consult

A literature search is a systematic search of all relevant literature on a specific topic. The literature search provides evidence to support many academic and clinical functions. The evidence gathered through a literature search can be used to answer a clinical question, write a research, review article or case report; prepare a presentation, write a grant application, and more.

Relevant literature can include journal articles, conference abstracts, books or book chapters, clinical trial registries and more.

Researchers, clinicians, and students search the literature all the time. So how is a literature search different?

As opposed to a background search where you are trying to review a topic, a literature search requires a methodical approach. To complete a literature search you will need:

  • A focused, defined question to guide the search. 
  • A list of databases and other websites that will comprehensively cover the topic.
  • A search strategy that includes keywords and controlled vocabulary
  • A tracking method so your search can be reported and reproduced.

This guide will walk you through the steps required to complete a literature search. 

what is literature search in library

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Further help

Student taking notes.

Your dissertation or research project will almost certainly require a search for literature on your topic, whether to identify selected research, to undertake a literature review or inform a full systematic review. Literature searches require planning, careful thought about what it is you wish to find out and a robust strategy to ensure you find relevant material.

On this page:

Planning your search.

  • Search techniques and developing your search strategy

Literature reviews

Systematic reviews.

Time spent carefully planning your search can save valuable time later on and lead to more relevant results and a more robust search strategy. You should consider the following:

  • Analysing your topic and understanding your research question: Carry out a scoping search to help understand your topic and to help define your question more clearly.
  • What are the key concepts in your search?
  • What terms might be used to describe those concepts? Consider synonyms and alternative spellings.
  • If your question relates to health or clinical medicine, you might like to use PICO (Population, Intervention, Comparison and Outcomes) to analyse your question:
  • Combine your concept terms together using the correct operators , such as AND and OR.

See our Library Skills Essentials guide for support materials and guidance for planning your search, including understanding and defining your topic, and defining search terms.

Search techniques and developing a search strategy

Make sure you are confident about using essential search techniques,  including combining search terms, phrase searching and truncation. These will help you find relevant results on your topic. See our guide to search techniques:

  • Search techniques

When carrying out a literature search to inform a dissertation or extended piece of research, you will need to think carefully about your search strategy. Have a look at our tutorials and videos to help you develop your literature searching skills:

  • Search skills for research: tutorials and videos

When you carry out a literature search you may need to search multiple resources (see  Sources and Resources ). Your search strategy will need to be adjusted depending on the resource you are using. For some resources, a simple search will be sufficient, whereas for more complex resources with more content, you may need to develop a sophisticated search strategy, ensuring you use the correct search techniques for that resource. See our guides to selected individual resources for further guidance.

  • Search guides to individual resources: bibliographic databases
  • What is a literature review?
  • Why are literature reviews important?

We also provide support for developing advanced search strategies to ensure comprehensive literature retrieval, including searching for systematic reviews. See our guide to Searching for Systematic Reviews.

  • Systematic reviews This guide provides information on systematic review processes and support available from UCL Library Services.

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See our library skills training sessions or contact your librarian .

For general enquiries, see Getting Help and contacting us .  

Get help and advice with literature searching

  • You can email your librarian direct to ask for advice on your search.
  • You can also book a virtual appointment with your librarian for more in depth enquiries.
  • Email your librarian to request an appointment or fill out our  individual consultation request form .
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Search Explore

Check out our Explore guide to find out more about how to use Explore for your research.

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Literature searching, what is literature searching.

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what is literature search in library

Literature Searching Process

Literature searching might seem intimidating because of the sheer amount of information available, but everyone can conduct a literature search by following these steps. Learn more about each step by browsing this guide:   Developing a Research Question,   Translating a Research Question,   Performing a Search,  and  Organizing Citations.

what is literature search in library

Literature Searching Benefits

Literature searching is time intensive and takes practice. However, it is well worth the effort to learn. Here are a few benefits to performing a literature search:

Background Information  - A literature search allows researchers to familiarize themselves with the scope of the research on a particular topic. It can also help a researcher recognize where they fall into the body of work. Are there any gaps in the research that your expertise could fill? Have any of your interests already been explored?

Find Major Players and Key Concepts  - As you get to know your topic, you'll begin to notice recurring authors, concepts, and terminology to build upon.

Credibility  - Showing that you have done your homework on a topic is necessary for the success of any project. This is especially true in instances where funding is involved, experiments are being conducted, and interventions are being evaluated. If you want to make a big change in your work or organization, literature searching can provide insight into effectiveness before money, time, and resources are spent.

what is literature search in library

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  • Last Updated: Nov 30, 2023 12:35 PM
  • URL: https://libguides.unthsc.edu/literature-searching

Searching the Literature: The Basics

  • Getting Started
  • Ask a Question
  • Select a Search Resource
  • Develop Search Terms
  • Execute the Search
  • Access/Save Results
  • Evaluate & Improve Your Search
  • Database Fundamentals This link opens in a new window
  • Ovid Medline This link opens in a new window
  • CINAHL This link opens in a new window
  • Cochrane Library This link opens in a new window
  • PubMed This link opens in a new window
  • Web of Science This link opens in a new window
  • Google Scholar This link opens in a new window
  • Additional Resources

Image showing the steps to searching the literature. 1 - Ask a Question. 2- Select a Search Resource. 3 - Develop Search Terms. 4 - Execute the Search. 5 - Access/Save Results. 6 - Evaluate and Improve.

What is a Literature Search?

A literature search is the act of gathering existing knowledge or data around a topic or research question.  

Regardless of the purpose of your literature search, all searches follow the same basic process:

  • Ask a question
  • Select a search resource
  • Develop search terms
  • Execute the search
  • Access results
  • Evaluate & improve your search

Each page in this guide explores a different step of the process and lays the groundwork for the following steps.

Why Search the Literature?

E.g. "I want to learn more about treatment options available for quitting smoking."

E.g. "I need some statistics for how smoking rates have changed over the last 20 years."    

E.g. "I'm designing a research study on the effectiveness of hypnosis for smoking cessation.  What's been done before?  What areas need further investigation?"    

E.g. "I want to gather and synthesize all the existing studies that help answer the following research question: Are support groups more effective than nicotine-replacement products for helping teenagers quit smoking?"

E.g. "What treatment should I recommend to my teenage patient interested in quitting smoking?"

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  • URL: https://hslmcmaster.libguides.com/literature_searching

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How to undertake a literature search

Introduction.

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 reading list is also available on dissertation and essay support which provides suggestions for key resources, books and journal articles which may help. Click on the link below to access this list:

Dissertation and essay support reading list

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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© 2024 Royal College of Nursing

  • Open access
  • Published: 14 August 2018

Defining the process to literature searching in systematic reviews: a literature review of guidance and supporting studies

  • Chris Cooper   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0864-5607 1 ,
  • Andrew Booth 2 ,
  • Jo Varley-Campbell 1 ,
  • Nicky Britten 3 &
  • Ruth Garside 4  

BMC Medical Research Methodology volume  18 , Article number:  85 ( 2018 ) Cite this article

195k Accesses

193 Citations

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Metrics details

Systematic literature searching is recognised as a critical component of the systematic review process. It involves a systematic search for studies and aims for a transparent report of study identification, leaving readers clear about what was done to identify studies, and how the findings of the review are situated in the relevant evidence.

Information specialists and review teams appear to work from a shared and tacit model of the literature search process. How this tacit model has developed and evolved is unclear, and it has not been explicitly examined before.

The purpose of this review is to determine if a shared model of the literature searching process can be detected across systematic review guidance documents and, if so, how this process is reported in the guidance and supported by published studies.

A literature review.

Two types of literature were reviewed: guidance and published studies. Nine guidance documents were identified, including: The Cochrane and Campbell Handbooks. Published studies were identified through ‘pearl growing’, citation chasing, a search of PubMed using the systematic review methods filter, and the authors’ topic knowledge.

The relevant sections within each guidance document were then read and re-read, with the aim of determining key methodological stages. Methodological stages were identified and defined. This data was reviewed to identify agreements and areas of unique guidance between guidance documents. Consensus across multiple guidance documents was used to inform selection of ‘key stages’ in the process of literature searching.

Eight key stages were determined relating specifically to literature searching in systematic reviews. They were: who should literature search, aims and purpose of literature searching, preparation, the search strategy, searching databases, supplementary searching, managing references and reporting the search process.

Conclusions

Eight key stages to the process of literature searching in systematic reviews were identified. These key stages are consistently reported in the nine guidance documents, suggesting consensus on the key stages of literature searching, and therefore the process of literature searching as a whole, in systematic reviews. Further research to determine the suitability of using the same process of literature searching for all types of systematic review is indicated.

Peer Review reports

Systematic literature searching is recognised as a critical component of the systematic review process. It involves a systematic search for studies and aims for a transparent report of study identification, leaving review stakeholders clear about what was done to identify studies, and how the findings of the review are situated in the relevant evidence.

Information specialists and review teams appear to work from a shared and tacit model of the literature search process. How this tacit model has developed and evolved is unclear, and it has not been explicitly examined before. This is in contrast to the information science literature, which has developed information processing models as an explicit basis for dialogue and empirical testing. Without an explicit model, research in the process of systematic literature searching will remain immature and potentially uneven, and the development of shared information models will be assumed but never articulated.

One way of developing such a conceptual model is by formally examining the implicit “programme theory” as embodied in key methodological texts. The aim of this review is therefore to determine if a shared model of the literature searching process in systematic reviews can be detected across guidance documents and, if so, how this process is reported and supported.

Identifying guidance

Key texts (henceforth referred to as “guidance”) were identified based upon their accessibility to, and prominence within, United Kingdom systematic reviewing practice. The United Kingdom occupies a prominent position in the science of health information retrieval, as quantified by such objective measures as the authorship of papers, the number of Cochrane groups based in the UK, membership and leadership of groups such as the Cochrane Information Retrieval Methods Group, the HTA-I Information Specialists’ Group and historic association with such centres as the UK Cochrane Centre, the NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE). Coupled with the linguistic dominance of English within medical and health science and the science of systematic reviews more generally, this offers a justification for a purposive sample that favours UK, European and Australian guidance documents.

Nine guidance documents were identified. These documents provide guidance for different types of reviews, namely: reviews of interventions, reviews of health technologies, reviews of qualitative research studies, reviews of social science topics, and reviews to inform guidance.

Whilst these guidance documents occasionally offer additional guidance on other types of systematic reviews, we have focused on the core and stated aims of these documents as they relate to literature searching. Table  1 sets out: the guidance document, the version audited, their core stated focus, and a bibliographical pointer to the main guidance relating to literature searching.

Once a list of key guidance documents was determined, it was checked by six senior information professionals based in the UK for relevance to current literature searching in systematic reviews.

Identifying supporting studies

In addition to identifying guidance, the authors sought to populate an evidence base of supporting studies (henceforth referred to as “studies”) that contribute to existing search practice. Studies were first identified by the authors from their knowledge on this topic area and, subsequently, through systematic citation chasing key studies (‘pearls’ [ 1 ]) located within each key stage of the search process. These studies are identified in Additional file  1 : Appendix Table 1. Citation chasing was conducted by analysing the bibliography of references for each study (backwards citation chasing) and through Google Scholar (forward citation chasing). A search of PubMed using the systematic review methods filter was undertaken in August 2017 (see Additional file 1 ). The search terms used were: (literature search*[Title/Abstract]) AND sysrev_methods[sb] and 586 results were returned. These results were sifted for relevance to the key stages in Fig.  1 by CC.

figure 1

The key stages of literature search guidance as identified from nine key texts

Extracting the data

To reveal the implicit process of literature searching within each guidance document, the relevant sections (chapters) on literature searching were read and re-read, with the aim of determining key methodological stages. We defined a key methodological stage as a distinct step in the overall process for which specific guidance is reported, and action is taken, that collectively would result in a completed literature search.

The chapter or section sub-heading for each methodological stage was extracted into a table using the exact language as reported in each guidance document. The lead author (CC) then read and re-read these data, and the paragraphs of the document to which the headings referred, summarising section details. This table was then reviewed, using comparison and contrast to identify agreements and areas of unique guidance. Consensus across multiple guidelines was used to inform selection of ‘key stages’ in the process of literature searching.

Having determined the key stages to literature searching, we then read and re-read the sections relating to literature searching again, extracting specific detail relating to the methodological process of literature searching within each key stage. Again, the guidance was then read and re-read, first on a document-by-document-basis and, secondly, across all the documents above, to identify both commonalities and areas of unique guidance.

Results and discussion

Our findings.

We were able to identify consensus across the guidance on literature searching for systematic reviews suggesting a shared implicit model within the information retrieval community. Whilst the structure of the guidance varies between documents, the same key stages are reported, even where the core focus of each document is different. We were able to identify specific areas of unique guidance, where a document reported guidance not summarised in other documents, together with areas of consensus across guidance.

Unique guidance

Only one document provided guidance on the topic of when to stop searching [ 2 ]. This guidance from 2005 anticipates a topic of increasing importance with the current interest in time-limited (i.e. “rapid”) reviews. Quality assurance (or peer review) of literature searches was only covered in two guidance documents [ 3 , 4 ]. This topic has emerged as increasingly important as indicated by the development of the PRESS instrument [ 5 ]. Text mining was discussed in four guidance documents [ 4 , 6 , 7 , 8 ] where the automation of some manual review work may offer efficiencies in literature searching [ 8 ].

Agreement between guidance: Defining the key stages of literature searching

Where there was agreement on the process, we determined that this constituted a key stage in the process of literature searching to inform systematic reviews.

From the guidance, we determined eight key stages that relate specifically to literature searching in systematic reviews. These are summarised at Fig. 1 . The data extraction table to inform Fig. 1 is reported in Table  2 . Table 2 reports the areas of common agreement and it demonstrates that the language used to describe key stages and processes varies significantly between guidance documents.

For each key stage, we set out the specific guidance, followed by discussion on how this guidance is situated within the wider literature.

Key stage one: Deciding who should undertake the literature search

The guidance.

Eight documents provided guidance on who should undertake literature searching in systematic reviews [ 2 , 4 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ]. The guidance affirms that people with relevant expertise of literature searching should ‘ideally’ be included within the review team [ 6 ]. Information specialists (or information scientists), librarians or trial search co-ordinators (TSCs) are indicated as appropriate researchers in six guidance documents [ 2 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ].

How the guidance corresponds to the published studies

The guidance is consistent with studies that call for the involvement of information specialists and librarians in systematic reviews [ 12 , 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 , 21 , 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 ] and which demonstrate how their training as ‘expert searchers’ and ‘analysers and organisers of data’ can be put to good use [ 13 ] in a variety of roles [ 12 , 16 , 20 , 21 , 24 , 25 , 26 ]. These arguments make sense in the context of the aims and purposes of literature searching in systematic reviews, explored below. The need for ‘thorough’ and ‘replicable’ literature searches was fundamental to the guidance and recurs in key stage two. Studies have found poor reporting, and a lack of replicable literature searches, to be a weakness in systematic reviews [ 17 , 18 , 27 , 28 ] and they argue that involvement of information specialists/ librarians would be associated with better reporting and better quality literature searching. Indeed, Meert et al. [ 29 ] demonstrated that involving a librarian as a co-author to a systematic review correlated with a higher score in the literature searching component of a systematic review [ 29 ]. As ‘new styles’ of rapid and scoping reviews emerge, where decisions on how to search are more iterative and creative, a clear role is made here too [ 30 ].

Knowing where to search for studies was noted as important in the guidance, with no agreement as to the appropriate number of databases to be searched [ 2 , 6 ]. Database (and resource selection more broadly) is acknowledged as a relevant key skill of information specialists and librarians [ 12 , 15 , 16 , 31 ].

Whilst arguments for including information specialists and librarians in the process of systematic review might be considered self-evident, Koffel and Rethlefsen [ 31 ] have questioned if the necessary involvement is actually happening [ 31 ].

Key stage two: Determining the aim and purpose of a literature search

The aim: Five of the nine guidance documents use adjectives such as ‘thorough’, ‘comprehensive’, ‘transparent’ and ‘reproducible’ to define the aim of literature searching [ 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 ]. Analogous phrases were present in a further three guidance documents, namely: ‘to identify the best available evidence’ [ 4 ] or ‘the aim of the literature search is not to retrieve everything. It is to retrieve everything of relevance’ [ 2 ] or ‘A systematic literature search aims to identify all publications relevant to the particular research question’ [ 3 ]. The Joanna Briggs Institute reviewers’ manual was the only guidance document where a clear statement on the aim of literature searching could not be identified. The purpose of literature searching was defined in three guidance documents, namely to minimise bias in the resultant review [ 6 , 8 , 10 ]. Accordingly, eight of nine documents clearly asserted that thorough and comprehensive literature searches are required as a potential mechanism for minimising bias.

The need for thorough and comprehensive literature searches appears as uniform within the eight guidance documents that describe approaches to literature searching in systematic reviews of effectiveness. Reviews of effectiveness (of intervention or cost), accuracy and prognosis, require thorough and comprehensive literature searches to transparently produce a reliable estimate of intervention effect. The belief that all relevant studies have been ‘comprehensively’ identified, and that this process has been ‘transparently’ reported, increases confidence in the estimate of effect and the conclusions that can be drawn [ 32 ]. The supporting literature exploring the need for comprehensive literature searches focuses almost exclusively on reviews of intervention effectiveness and meta-analysis. Different ‘styles’ of review may have different standards however; the alternative, offered by purposive sampling, has been suggested in the specific context of qualitative evidence syntheses [ 33 ].

What is a comprehensive literature search?

Whilst the guidance calls for thorough and comprehensive literature searches, it lacks clarity on what constitutes a thorough and comprehensive literature search, beyond the implication that all of the literature search methods in Table 2 should be used to identify studies. Egger et al. [ 34 ], in an empirical study evaluating the importance of comprehensive literature searches for trials in systematic reviews, defined a comprehensive search for trials as:

a search not restricted to English language;

where Cochrane CENTRAL or at least two other electronic databases had been searched (such as MEDLINE or EMBASE); and

at least one of the following search methods has been used to identify unpublished trials: searches for (I) conference abstracts, (ii) theses, (iii) trials registers; and (iv) contacts with experts in the field [ 34 ].

Tricco et al. (2008) used a similar threshold of bibliographic database searching AND a supplementary search method in a review when examining the risk of bias in systematic reviews. Their criteria were: one database (limited using the Cochrane Highly Sensitive Search Strategy (HSSS)) and handsearching [ 35 ].

Together with the guidance, this would suggest that comprehensive literature searching requires the use of BOTH bibliographic database searching AND supplementary search methods.

Comprehensiveness in literature searching, in the sense of how much searching should be undertaken, remains unclear. Egger et al. recommend that ‘investigators should consider the type of literature search and degree of comprehension that is appropriate for the review in question, taking into account budget and time constraints’ [ 34 ]. This view tallies with the Cochrane Handbook, which stipulates clearly, that study identification should be undertaken ‘within resource limits’ [ 9 ]. This would suggest that the limitations to comprehension are recognised but it raises questions on how this is decided and reported [ 36 ].

What is the point of comprehensive literature searching?

The purpose of thorough and comprehensive literature searches is to avoid missing key studies and to minimize bias [ 6 , 8 , 10 , 34 , 37 , 38 , 39 ] since a systematic review based only on published (or easily accessible) studies may have an exaggerated effect size [ 35 ]. Felson (1992) sets out potential biases that could affect the estimate of effect in a meta-analysis [ 40 ] and Tricco et al. summarize the evidence concerning bias and confounding in systematic reviews [ 35 ]. Egger et al. point to non-publication of studies, publication bias, language bias and MEDLINE bias, as key biases [ 34 , 35 , 40 , 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 , 45 , 46 ]. Comprehensive searches are not the sole factor to mitigate these biases but their contribution is thought to be significant [ 2 , 32 , 34 ]. Fehrmann (2011) suggests that ‘the search process being described in detail’ and that, where standard comprehensive search techniques have been applied, increases confidence in the search results [ 32 ].

Does comprehensive literature searching work?

Egger et al., and other study authors, have demonstrated a change in the estimate of intervention effectiveness where relevant studies were excluded from meta-analysis [ 34 , 47 ]. This would suggest that missing studies in literature searching alters the reliability of effectiveness estimates. This is an argument for comprehensive literature searching. Conversely, Egger et al. found that ‘comprehensive’ searches still missed studies and that comprehensive searches could, in fact, introduce bias into a review rather than preventing it, through the identification of low quality studies then being included in the meta-analysis [ 34 ]. Studies query if identifying and including low quality or grey literature studies changes the estimate of effect [ 43 , 48 ] and question if time is better invested updating systematic reviews rather than searching for unpublished studies [ 49 ], or mapping studies for review as opposed to aiming for high sensitivity in literature searching [ 50 ].

Aim and purpose beyond reviews of effectiveness

The need for comprehensive literature searches is less certain in reviews of qualitative studies, and for reviews where a comprehensive identification of studies is difficult to achieve (for example, in Public health) [ 33 , 51 , 52 , 53 , 54 , 55 ]. Literature searching for qualitative studies, and in public health topics, typically generates a greater number of studies to sift than in reviews of effectiveness [ 39 ] and demonstrating the ‘value’ of studies identified or missed is harder [ 56 ], since the study data do not typically support meta-analysis. Nussbaumer-Streit et al. (2016) have registered a review protocol to assess whether abbreviated literature searches (as opposed to comprehensive literature searches) has an impact on conclusions across multiple bodies of evidence, not only on effect estimates [ 57 ] which may develop this understanding. It may be that decision makers and users of systematic reviews are willing to trade the certainty from a comprehensive literature search and systematic review in exchange for different approaches to evidence synthesis [ 58 ], and that comprehensive literature searches are not necessarily a marker of literature search quality, as previously thought [ 36 ]. Different approaches to literature searching [ 37 , 38 , 59 , 60 , 61 , 62 ] and developing the concept of when to stop searching are important areas for further study [ 36 , 59 ].

The study by Nussbaumer-Streit et al. has been published since the submission of this literature review [ 63 ]. Nussbaumer-Streit et al. (2018) conclude that abbreviated literature searches are viable options for rapid evidence syntheses, if decision-makers are willing to trade the certainty from a comprehensive literature search and systematic review, but that decision-making which demands detailed scrutiny should still be based on comprehensive literature searches [ 63 ].

Key stage three: Preparing for the literature search

Six documents provided guidance on preparing for a literature search [ 2 , 3 , 6 , 7 , 9 , 10 ]. The Cochrane Handbook clearly stated that Cochrane authors (i.e. researchers) should seek advice from a trial search co-ordinator (i.e. a person with specific skills in literature searching) ‘before’ starting a literature search [ 9 ].

Two key tasks were perceptible in preparing for a literature searching [ 2 , 6 , 7 , 10 , 11 ]. First, to determine if there are any existing or on-going reviews, or if a new review is justified [ 6 , 11 ]; and, secondly, to develop an initial literature search strategy to estimate the volume of relevant literature (and quality of a small sample of relevant studies [ 10 ]) and indicate the resources required for literature searching and the review of the studies that follows [ 7 , 10 ].

Three documents summarised guidance on where to search to determine if a new review was justified [ 2 , 6 , 11 ]. These focused on searching databases of systematic reviews (The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) and the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE)), institutional registries (including PROSPERO), and MEDLINE [ 6 , 11 ]. It is worth noting, however, that as of 2015, DARE (and NHS EEDs) are no longer being updated and so the relevance of this (these) resource(s) will diminish over-time [ 64 ]. One guidance document, ‘Systematic reviews in the Social Sciences’, noted, however, that databases are not the only source of information and unpublished reports, conference proceeding and grey literature may also be required, depending on the nature of the review question [ 2 ].

Two documents reported clearly that this preparation (or ‘scoping’) exercise should be undertaken before the actual search strategy is developed [ 7 , 10 ]).

The guidance offers the best available source on preparing the literature search with the published studies not typically reporting how their scoping informed the development of their search strategies nor how their search approaches were developed. Text mining has been proposed as a technique to develop search strategies in the scoping stages of a review although this work is still exploratory [ 65 ]. ‘Clustering documents’ and word frequency analysis have also been tested to identify search terms and studies for review [ 66 , 67 ]. Preparing for literature searches and scoping constitutes an area for future research.

Key stage four: Designing the search strategy

The Population, Intervention, Comparator, Outcome (PICO) structure was the commonly reported structure promoted to design a literature search strategy. Five documents suggested that the eligibility criteria or review question will determine which concepts of PICO will be populated to develop the search strategy [ 1 , 4 , 7 , 8 , 9 ]. The NICE handbook promoted multiple structures, namely PICO, SPICE (Setting, Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation) and multi-stranded approaches [ 4 ].

With the exclusion of The Joanna Briggs Institute reviewers’ manual, the guidance offered detail on selecting key search terms, synonyms, Boolean language, selecting database indexing terms and combining search terms. The CEE handbook suggested that ‘search terms may be compiled with the help of the commissioning organisation and stakeholders’ [ 10 ].

The use of limits, such as language or date limits, were discussed in all documents [ 2 , 3 , 4 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ].

Search strategy structure

The guidance typically relates to reviews of intervention effectiveness so PICO – with its focus on intervention and comparator - is the dominant model used to structure literature search strategies [ 68 ]. PICOs – where the S denotes study design - is also commonly used in effectiveness reviews [ 6 , 68 ]. As the NICE handbook notes, alternative models to structure literature search strategies have been developed and tested. Booth provides an overview on formulating questions for evidence based practice [ 69 ] and has developed a number of alternatives to the PICO structure, namely: BeHEMoTh (Behaviour of interest; Health context; Exclusions; Models or Theories) for use when systematically identifying theory [ 55 ]; SPICE (Setting, Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation) for identification of social science and evaluation studies [ 69 ] and, working with Cooke and colleagues, SPIDER (Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type) [ 70 ]. SPIDER has been compared to PICO and PICOs in a study by Methley et al. [ 68 ].

The NICE handbook also suggests the use of multi-stranded approaches to developing literature search strategies [ 4 ]. Glanville developed this idea in a study by Whitting et al. [ 71 ] and a worked example of this approach is included in the development of a search filter by Cooper et al. [ 72 ].

Writing search strategies: Conceptual and objective approaches

Hausner et al. [ 73 ] provide guidance on writing literature search strategies, delineating between conceptually and objectively derived approaches. The conceptual approach, advocated by and explained in the guidance documents, relies on the expertise of the literature searcher to identify key search terms and then develop key terms to include synonyms and controlled syntax. Hausner and colleagues set out the objective approach [ 73 ] and describe what may be done to validate it [ 74 ].

The use of limits

The guidance documents offer direction on the use of limits within a literature search. Limits can be used to focus literature searching to specific study designs or by other markers (such as by date) which limits the number of studies returned by a literature search. The use of limits should be described and the implications explored [ 34 ] since limiting literature searching can introduce bias (explored above). Craven et al. have suggested the use of a supporting narrative to explain decisions made in the process of developing literature searches and this advice would usefully capture decisions on the use of search limits [ 75 ].

Key stage five: Determining the process of literature searching and deciding where to search (bibliographic database searching)

Table 2 summarises the process of literature searching as reported in each guidance document. Searching bibliographic databases was consistently reported as the ‘first step’ to literature searching in all nine guidance documents.

Three documents reported specific guidance on where to search, in each case specific to the type of review their guidance informed, and as a minimum requirement [ 4 , 9 , 11 ]. Seven of the key guidance documents suggest that the selection of bibliographic databases depends on the topic of review [ 2 , 3 , 4 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 10 ], with two documents noting the absence of an agreed standard on what constitutes an acceptable number of databases searched [ 2 , 6 ].

The guidance documents summarise ‘how to’ search bibliographic databases in detail and this guidance is further contextualised above in terms of developing the search strategy. The documents provide guidance of selecting bibliographic databases, in some cases stating acceptable minima (i.e. The Cochrane Handbook states Cochrane CENTRAL, MEDLINE and EMBASE), and in other cases simply listing bibliographic database available to search. Studies have explored the value in searching specific bibliographic databases, with Wright et al. (2015) noting the contribution of CINAHL in identifying qualitative studies [ 76 ], Beckles et al. (2013) questioning the contribution of CINAHL to identifying clinical studies for guideline development [ 77 ], and Cooper et al. (2015) exploring the role of UK-focused bibliographic databases to identify UK-relevant studies [ 78 ]. The host of the database (e.g. OVID or ProQuest) has been shown to alter the search returns offered. Younger and Boddy [ 79 ] report differing search returns from the same database (AMED) but where the ‘host’ was different [ 79 ].

The average number of bibliographic database searched in systematic reviews has risen in the period 1994–2014 (from 1 to 4) [ 80 ] but there remains (as attested to by the guidance) no consensus on what constitutes an acceptable number of databases searched [ 48 ]. This is perhaps because thinking about the number of databases searched is the wrong question, researchers should be focused on which databases were searched and why, and which databases were not searched and why. The discussion should re-orientate to the differential value of sources but researchers need to think about how to report this in studies to allow findings to be generalised. Bethel (2017) has proposed ‘search summaries’, completed by the literature searcher, to record where included studies were identified, whether from database (and which databases specifically) or supplementary search methods [ 81 ]. Search summaries document both yield and accuracy of searches, which could prospectively inform resource use and decisions to search or not to search specific databases in topic areas. The prospective use of such data presupposes, however, that past searches are a potential predictor of future search performance (i.e. that each topic is to be considered representative and not unique). In offering a body of practice, this data would be of greater practicable use than current studies which are considered as little more than individual case studies [ 82 , 83 , 84 , 85 , 86 , 87 , 88 , 89 , 90 ].

When to database search is another question posed in the literature. Beyer et al. [ 91 ] report that databases can be prioritised for literature searching which, whilst not addressing the question of which databases to search, may at least bring clarity as to which databases to search first [ 91 ]. Paradoxically, this links to studies that suggest PubMed should be searched in addition to MEDLINE (OVID interface) since this improves the currency of systematic reviews [ 92 , 93 ]. Cooper et al. (2017) have tested the idea of database searching not as a primary search method (as suggested in the guidance) but as a supplementary search method in order to manage the volume of studies identified for an environmental effectiveness systematic review. Their case study compared the effectiveness of database searching versus a protocol using supplementary search methods and found that the latter identified more relevant studies for review than searching bibliographic databases [ 94 ].

Key stage six: Determining the process of literature searching and deciding where to search (supplementary search methods)

Table 2 also summaries the process of literature searching which follows bibliographic database searching. As Table 2 sets out, guidance that supplementary literature search methods should be used in systematic reviews recurs across documents, but the order in which these methods are used, and the extent to which they are used, varies. We noted inconsistency in the labelling of supplementary search methods between guidance documents.

Rather than focus on the guidance on how to use the methods (which has been summarised in a recent review [ 95 ]), we focus on the aim or purpose of supplementary search methods.

The Cochrane Handbook reported that ‘efforts’ to identify unpublished studies should be made [ 9 ]. Four guidance documents [ 2 , 3 , 6 , 9 ] acknowledged that searching beyond bibliographic databases was necessary since ‘databases are not the only source of literature’ [ 2 ]. Only one document reported any guidance on determining when to use supplementary methods. The IQWiG handbook reported that the use of handsearching (in their example) could be determined on a ‘case-by-case basis’ which implies that the use of these methods is optional rather than mandatory. This is in contrast to the guidance (above) on bibliographic database searching.

The issue for supplementary search methods is similar in many ways to the issue of searching bibliographic databases: demonstrating value. The purpose and contribution of supplementary search methods in systematic reviews is increasingly acknowledged [ 37 , 61 , 62 , 96 , 97 , 98 , 99 , 100 , 101 ] but understanding the value of the search methods to identify studies and data is unclear. In a recently published review, Cooper et al. (2017) reviewed the literature on supplementary search methods looking to determine the advantages, disadvantages and resource implications of using supplementary search methods [ 95 ]. This review also summarises the key guidance and empirical studies and seeks to address the question on when to use these search methods and when not to [ 95 ]. The guidance is limited in this regard and, as Table 2 demonstrates, offers conflicting advice on the order of searching, and the extent to which these search methods should be used in systematic reviews.

Key stage seven: Managing the references

Five of the documents provided guidance on managing references, for example downloading, de-duplicating and managing the output of literature searches [ 2 , 4 , 6 , 8 , 10 ]. This guidance typically itemised available bibliographic management tools rather than offering guidance on how to use them specifically [ 2 , 4 , 6 , 8 ]. The CEE handbook provided guidance on importing data where no direct export option is available (e.g. web-searching) [ 10 ].

The literature on using bibliographic management tools is not large relative to the number of ‘how to’ videos on platforms such as YouTube (see for example [ 102 ]). These YouTube videos confirm the overall lack of ‘how to’ guidance identified in this study and offer useful instruction on managing references. Bramer et al. set out methods for de-duplicating data and reviewing references in Endnote [ 103 , 104 ] and Gall tests the direct search function within Endnote to access databases such as PubMed, finding a number of limitations [ 105 ]. Coar et al. and Ahmed et al. consider the role of the free-source tool, Zotero [ 106 , 107 ]. Managing references is a key administrative function in the process of review particularly for documenting searches in PRISMA guidance.

Key stage eight: Documenting the search

The Cochrane Handbook was the only guidance document to recommend a specific reporting guideline: Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) [ 9 ]. Six documents provided guidance on reporting the process of literature searching with specific criteria to report [ 3 , 4 , 6 , 8 , 9 , 10 ]. There was consensus on reporting: the databases searched (and the host searched by), the search strategies used, and any use of limits (e.g. date, language, search filters (The CRD handbook called for these limits to be justified [ 6 ])). Three guidance documents reported that the number of studies identified should be recorded [ 3 , 6 , 10 ]. The number of duplicates identified [ 10 ], the screening decisions [ 3 ], a comprehensive list of grey literature sources searched (and full detail for other supplementary search methods) [ 8 ], and an annotation of search terms tested but not used [ 4 ] were identified as unique items in four documents.

The Cochrane Handbook was the only guidance document to note that the full search strategies for each database should be included in the Additional file 1 of the review [ 9 ].

All guidance documents should ultimately deliver completed systematic reviews that fulfil the requirements of the PRISMA reporting guidelines [ 108 ]. The guidance broadly requires the reporting of data that corresponds with the requirements of the PRISMA statement although documents typically ask for diverse and additional items [ 108 ]. In 2008, Sampson et al. observed a lack of consensus on reporting search methods in systematic reviews [ 109 ] and this remains the case as of 2017, as evidenced in the guidance documents, and in spite of the publication of the PRISMA guidelines in 2009 [ 110 ]. It is unclear why the collective guidance does not more explicitly endorse adherence to the PRISMA guidance.

Reporting of literature searching is a key area in systematic reviews since it sets out clearly what was done and how the conclusions of the review can be believed [ 52 , 109 ]. Despite strong endorsement in the guidance documents, specifically supported in PRISMA guidance, and other related reporting standards too (such as ENTREQ for qualitative evidence synthesis, STROBE for reviews of observational studies), authors still highlight the prevalence of poor standards of literature search reporting [ 31 , 110 , 111 , 112 , 113 , 114 , 115 , 116 , 117 , 118 , 119 ]. To explore issues experienced by authors in reporting literature searches, and look at uptake of PRISMA, Radar et al. [ 120 ] surveyed over 260 review authors to determine common problems and their work summaries the practical aspects of reporting literature searching [ 120 ]. Atkinson et al. [ 121 ] have also analysed reporting standards for literature searching, summarising recommendations and gaps for reporting search strategies [ 121 ].

One area that is less well covered by the guidance, but nevertheless appears in this literature, is the quality appraisal or peer review of literature search strategies. The PRESS checklist is the most prominent and it aims to develop evidence-based guidelines to peer review of electronic search strategies [ 5 , 122 , 123 ]. A corresponding guideline for documentation of supplementary search methods does not yet exist although this idea is currently being explored.

How the reporting of the literature searching process corresponds to critical appraisal tools is an area for further research. In the survey undertaken by Radar et al. (2014), 86% of survey respondents (153/178) identified a need for further guidance on what aspects of the literature search process to report [ 120 ]. The PRISMA statement offers a brief summary of what to report but little practical guidance on how to report it [ 108 ]. Critical appraisal tools for systematic reviews, such as AMSTAR 2 (Shea et al. [ 124 ]) and ROBIS (Whiting et al. [ 125 ]), can usefully be read alongside PRISMA guidance, since they offer greater detail on how the reporting of the literature search will be appraised and, therefore, they offer a proxy on what to report [ 124 , 125 ]. Further research in the form of a study which undertakes a comparison between PRISMA and quality appraisal checklists for systematic reviews would seem to begin addressing the call, identified by Radar et al., for further guidance on what to report [ 120 ].

Limitations

Other handbooks exist.

A potential limitation of this literature review is the focus on guidance produced in Europe (the UK specifically) and Australia. We justify the decision for our selection of the nine guidance documents reviewed in this literature review in section “ Identifying guidance ”. In brief, these nine guidance documents were selected as the most relevant health care guidance that inform UK systematic reviewing practice, given that the UK occupies a prominent position in the science of health information retrieval. We acknowledge the existence of other guidance documents, such as those from North America (e.g. the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) [ 126 ], The Institute of Medicine [ 127 ] and the guidance and resources produced by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH) [ 128 ]). We comment further on this directly below.

The handbooks are potentially linked to one another

What is not clear is the extent to which the guidance documents inter-relate or provide guidance uniquely. The Cochrane Handbook, first published in 1994, is notably a key source of reference in guidance and systematic reviews beyond Cochrane reviews. It is not clear to what extent broadening the sample of guidance handbooks to include North American handbooks, and guidance handbooks from other relevant countries too, would alter the findings of this literature review or develop further support for the process model. Since we cannot be clear, we raise this as a potential limitation of this literature review. On our initial review of a sample of North American, and other, guidance documents (before selecting the guidance documents considered in this review), however, we do not consider that the inclusion of these further handbooks would alter significantly the findings of this literature review.

This is a literature review

A further limitation of this review was that the review of published studies is not a systematic review of the evidence for each key stage. It is possible that other relevant studies could help contribute to the exploration and development of the key stages identified in this review.

This literature review would appear to demonstrate the existence of a shared model of the literature searching process in systematic reviews. We call this model ‘the conventional approach’, since it appears to be common convention in nine different guidance documents.

The findings reported above reveal eight key stages in the process of literature searching for systematic reviews. These key stages are consistently reported in the nine guidance documents which suggests consensus on the key stages of literature searching, and therefore the process of literature searching as a whole, in systematic reviews.

In Table 2 , we demonstrate consensus regarding the application of literature search methods. All guidance documents distinguish between primary and supplementary search methods. Bibliographic database searching is consistently the first method of literature searching referenced in each guidance document. Whilst the guidance uniformly supports the use of supplementary search methods, there is little evidence for a consistent process with diverse guidance across documents. This may reflect differences in the core focus across each document, linked to differences in identifying effectiveness studies or qualitative studies, for instance.

Eight of the nine guidance documents reported on the aims of literature searching. The shared understanding was that literature searching should be thorough and comprehensive in its aim and that this process should be reported transparently so that that it could be reproduced. Whilst only three documents explicitly link this understanding to minimising bias, it is clear that comprehensive literature searching is implicitly linked to ‘not missing relevant studies’ which is approximately the same point.

Defining the key stages in this review helps categorise the scholarship available, and it prioritises areas for development or further study. The supporting studies on preparing for literature searching (key stage three, ‘preparation’) were, for example, comparatively few, and yet this key stage represents a decisive moment in literature searching for systematic reviews. It is where search strategy structure is determined, search terms are chosen or discarded, and the resources to be searched are selected. Information specialists, librarians and researchers, are well placed to develop these and other areas within the key stages we identify.

This review calls for further research to determine the suitability of using the conventional approach. The publication dates of the guidance documents which underpin the conventional approach may raise questions as to whether the process which they each report remains valid for current systematic literature searching. In addition, it may be useful to test whether it is desirable to use the same process model of literature searching for qualitative evidence synthesis as that for reviews of intervention effectiveness, which this literature review demonstrates is presently recommended best practice.

Abbreviations

Behaviour of interest; Health context; Exclusions; Models or Theories

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials

Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects

Enhancing transparency in reporting the synthesis of qualitative research

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare

National Institute for Clinical Excellence

Population, Intervention, Comparator, Outcome

Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses

Setting, Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation

Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type

STrengthening the Reporting of OBservational studies in Epidemiology

Trial Search Co-ordinators

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CADTH: Resources 2018.

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Acknowledgements

CC acknowledges the supervision offered by Professor Chris Hyde.

This publication forms a part of CC’s PhD. CC’s PhD was funded through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment (HTA) Programme (Project Number 16/54/11). The open access fee for this publication was paid for by Exeter Medical School.

RG and NB were partially supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.

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CC conceived the idea for this study and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. CC discussed this publication in PhD supervision with AB and separately with JVC. CC revised the publication with input and comments from AB, JVC, RG and NB. All authors revised the manuscript prior to submission. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Additional file 1:.

Appendix tables and PubMed search strategy. Key studies used for pearl growing per key stage, working data extraction tables and the PubMed search strategy. (DOCX 30 kb)

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Cooper, C., Booth, A., Varley-Campbell, J. et al. Defining the process to literature searching in systematic reviews: a literature review of guidance and supporting studies. BMC Med Res Methodol 18 , 85 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12874-018-0545-3

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what is literature search in library

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Literature Search: Getting Started

  • Getting Started
  • Google Scholar
  • BASE Search Engine
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What is a Literature Search?

The purpose of a literature search is to locate all relevant materials on a particular topic, including books, journal articles, reports, and conference papers.

Prior to beginning a search, library users should complete several steps, including:

  • Formulating a topic that is neither too narrow nor too broad;
  • Developing appropriate search terms; and
  • Defining the scope of the search with respect to time frame, language, geographical area and language.

Users should also consider the format of the information that they are seeking. In general, researchers will locate the most current information in periodicals, such as journals and conference reports. This is particularly true of research in scientific and technical fields, in which information and knowledge often change at a rapid rate. Books remain a good source of information for historical research as well as for fields where knowledge is more static. Books and  ebooks  can also be a good starting point for research in any field. They can provide researchers with a broad overview of the field of interest.

Explore the other tabs in this guide to learn more about the tools available and how to use them.

Tools for your search

The Commerce Research Library has several tools for performing these searches, including:

  • Library Search , the Library’s federated catalog which searches across many databases, including the many EBSCO databases, ProQuest ABI/Inform, and HeinOnline.
  • LexisNexis , a subscription research database provides access to many scholarly journals, but cannot be searched in Library Search. 
  • Microsoft Academic , a free search engine on the web.
  • Next: Library Search >>
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Literature Search Strategies: Main

Things to consider, internet search tips, generating search terms.

  • Using Library's Databases to Find Articles
  • Using Primary & Review Articles

Evaluating Resources (Four "R"s)

Broadening searches using one article.

  • Citation & Bibliography Tools

Borrowing from Another Library

Google scholar, research consultation.

The following suggestions will help you become a more efficient internet researcher.

  • Limit Results to a Domain You can limit your search result by adding .gov, .org, or .edu. The info from these sites tend to be more reliable than .com sites.
  • Use Quotes Try using quotes to search for phrases. If you are looking for something specific, this technique will limit your results considerably. If your results are too few, try removing some of the words within the quotes or even break up a single quote into two or three smaller quotes. For example, "algae bloom" and "freshwater habitat."
  • Use Unique Words Use distinctive or unique words to limit results to relevant info. There are usually specific terms or phrases used by scholars and researchers that describe specific topics, theories, and research. Keep an eye out and use these unique words and use them.
  • Exclude Words Let's say you want to search for content about environmental marketing, but you want to exclude any results that contain the term advertising. Simply use the "-" sign in front to exclude a word. For example: environmental marketing -advertising
  • Site Specific Search To search a specific website for content, simply use the "site:somesite.com" modifier. This sometimes works for the web sites of journals. For example: "Mad Cow Disease" site:www.usda.com
  • This OR That By default, when you do a search, Google will include all the terms specified in the search. If you are looking for any one of one or more terms to match, then you can use the OR operator. (Note: The OR has to be capitalized). For example: eutrophication OR hypertrophication
  • Similar Words and Synonyms To include similar words or synonyms, use the "~" in front of the word. For example: "internet marketing" ~professional
  • Specific Document Types To find results of a specific type of file, you can use the modifier "filetype:". For example, you might want to find only PDFs related to microbial hosting Example: "microbial hosting" filetype:pdf
  • Use Google Scholar Instead of using regular Google, try using Google Scholar . Google Scholar is the search engine to use when looking for scholarly literature, including abstracts, citations and papers. The most relevant results should appear on the first page. More info about Google Scholar below.
  • Use Google News Archive Google News Archive makes it easy to search historical archives. You can search by keyword and select news from relevant time periods.
  • Using Wikipedia Wikipedia is great for finding background information on topics. Often times Wikipedia entries list where their original sources of information came from such as books, articles, and web sites. So avoid citing Wikipedia and go back to the original source.

Writing down search terms can help you save time and make you a more efficient searcher! Initially, think about main ideas and words that describe your topic, and use synonyms of these words to expand your topic and explore different perspectives. This will also help you find more relevant results, and make your projects more interesting and engaging for both you and your readers.

This process is ongoing, so you should continue to add words and phrases to this list throughout your research search. You may discover new terms that are more accurate descriptions, or more appropriate to use.  For example, while you are searching for articles on eutrophication you come across another term called hypertrophication that yields results more relevant to your research. 

Using Library's Databases to Find Articles.

Use one of the library's subject-specific databases to find articles. Each database covers (indexes) specific journals for a related field of study, and there's some natural overlap from database to database. But the primary purpose for using a database is to find out what has been published and is "out there" in the world.

Some types of literature, such as bulletins, newsletters, reports, and some journals that are not indexed in the databases Willamette has.  Read the database descriptions to learn about their strengths.

Using Primary & Review Articles to Your Advantage

Sources of information are considered primary, secondary, or tertiary depending on their originality (those who did the original work or commented on the work of others) and their proximity (is this a first-hand account, or after the fact). It is not always easy to distinguish between the three types of sources, and they even differ between subjects and disciplines, particularly between the sciences and humanities. By knowing whether the literature is primary, secondary, or tertiary source you will be able to know how make best use of these types of resources.

  • Examples: original research, preprints, letters, correspondence, diaries, court cases, interviews, pictorial works, fiction, poetry, newspaper articles about current events.
  • Examples: review articles, books, literary critiques, commentaries, dissertations, thesis, biographies, analyses, public opinion, moral and ethical aspects, history, social and government policy, law and legislation.
  • Examples: textbooks, encyclopedias, directories, dictionaries, handbooks, guides, classification, chronology, and other fact books.
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is scope or purpose specifically stated? Do the contents match the stated scope?
  • Is the point of view stated? Is there a particular agenda that is being pushed?
  • Does it have an established reputation? If so, consider what kind of reputation it represents?
  • For web sites, what is the host's motivation for providing the information on the Web? (Advertising for profit, part of agency's mission, educational purposes, reporting original research, publicizing a particular agenda)
  • .com = commercial source
  • .gov = government agency
  • .org = non-profit organization
  • .net = consortium (profit or non-profit)
  • .edu = educational institution

2. Readability

  • Is the text well written? Is it written in the language of the discipline or for a general audience?
  • Does the source have features, such as charts, illustrations, or a bibliography, that will be helpful?
  • Is the information needed to cite the material easily found?
  • Is there a lot of information available or is the information it provides limited?
  • For web sites, are links to other Web resources labeled clearly?

3. Reliability

  • Is objectivity a factor?
  • Who is the author?
  • Does the author provide credentials demonstrating expertise or knowledge of the subject?
  • Is the publisher reputable?
  • Does the resource contain grammatical, spelling or typographical errors?
  • Is there any contact information provided?
  • Are facts, such as statistics, accurate, current, and verifiable? Are sources of information cited?
  • What sources or methods did the author use to gather the information?
  • Is the method of obtaining data accurate and dependable?
  • Is it refereed/peer-reviewed or did just a staff editor review it? Peer-review means a scholar or researcher in the related field has reviewed it before publication.
  • How frequently is the resource updated?
  • For web sites, are the links to other resources current? And is the page finished or still under construction?

4. References

  • Does the author list where they get their information from (e.g. footnotes, bibliography, or reference list)?
  • Are there many sources listed?
  • Are the author's sources reliable?
  • Can you follow their listed sources to obtain the original information sources?

Many times you can find more articles and books just by using one relevant article.  By looking at the bibliography of the article or book you can find what sources they cited.  You can then in turn take a look at where an original source of information got their supporting literature.  This process has the advantage of going back to an original source of information that are often foundational in theories, processes, and synthesis. However, it also takes you backwards in time and lacks currency.

You can also use databases, such as Google Scholar and Science Citation Index , to find literature that cite an original article.  This has the advantage of finding current literature, which is extremely important in the sciences.  For example, if the article you begin with was written in 2005, these databases will find things that cite this article.  All of your results will be more current than 2005.

Below is a graphic displaying the concept of these techniques. By using these two techniques together--find citing literature and browsing bibliographies--you will broaden your research results tremendously. 

what is literature search in library

Zotero  is a reference manager designed to store, manage, and cite bibliographic references, such as books and articles. It also is a powerful tool for collecting, organizing, and sharing research information and sources.

This free, open source tool works with Macs and PCs (a beta version for Chromebooks has recently been released). Download both desktop and browser extension for it to work with Google Docs and MS Word. References also can be copied and pasted.

For help contact: Bill Kelm, [email protected] or John Repplinger, [email protected]

You can still get something that Willamette does not own or have access through Summit and Interlibrary loan. First, make sure Willamette doesn't already have it by checking Willamette's Catalog for book and the Journal Finder for specific journals:

  • Willamette's Catalog (Books)
  • Journal Finder (Journal Titles)

If Willamette doesn't have it, then use WorldCat Local to request the book or article from another library in our Summit regional lending system:

  • Search WorldCat Local to find a copy held in the Summit consortium.
  • If not available in Summit, fill out a blank form to request it through Interlibrary Loan .

Tip: Use the red button in the databases to searches our catalog and transfer needed information into an interlibrary loan form.

Your loan requests will be sent to other institutions that own the material. The lending institution will typically scan email articles, and you will receive the article within 2-5 business days. Books from Summit are usually deliver in 3-5 business days (12 days through interlibrary loan). For additional loan periods and rules, please visit the Loan Periods and Rules page.

What is Google Scholar?

Google Scholar is a search engine that can find scholarly material such as peer-reviewed journal articles, books, reports, theses and dissertations on the Internet. Google Scholar covers a wide range of disciplines, but is strongest in the technical sciences and weakest in the humanities. Think of Google Scholar as another place to search, in addition to the databases that Willamette offers. With practice, you will be able to use both tools together.

No one can tell us exactly what is in Google Scholar, or how often it is updated. In contrast, subscription databases from this page library databases provide precise descriptions of coverage and currency of information.

What do libraries have to do with Google Scholar?

Libraries are an integral component of Google Scholar. By incorporating “Library Links,” Google Scholar works closely with libraries to provide access to their users. As a Willamette student or affiliate, you can set up Google Scholar so that it displays the Get it @ WU links in the results page.

If you are using Google Scholar on on campus, it will recognize that and automatically provide the “library links.”. If you are working off campus, set up your Google Scholar preferences page by typing in Willamette University in the Library Links box and click on the “Find Library” button. Select the item.

Scholar Preferences

What should I do if I’m asked to pay for the full text?

Google Scholar often links to commercial publisher websites which ask you to pay for access. DO NOT PAY FOR ARTICLES! Look for the Get it @ WU link. If it turns out that we do not have the article available, you can still request it at no cost by using Interlibrary Loan .

Can I trust the resources listed in Google Scholar?

Not necessarily. You will still need to evaluate what you find because Google Scholar includes material that may not be appropriate for your research and occasionally non-scholarly materials. Some of these items include pre-edited articles and reports, as well as theses that may not be as scholarly as other resources. You may also find errors in citation information.

Remember, not all scholarly journals are indexed in Google. Many important journals are not included, so you should not base all of your research on what you find in Google scholar. You may be missing some very important information. Google scholar does not cover material written pre-1990 as well as subscription databases do.

What does “cited by” mean?

After you conduct a search in Google Scholar, you will see some references that include a link which reads Cited by 1410 (or some other number). When you see a link like this, it means that Google Scholar can tell you what sources have used information from this resource.

Cited in Scholar

Be aware that there is currently (as of 2012) a lot of controversy regarding how citations are counted for both Google Scholar and Web of Science When in doubt, check with your academic department or professor to find out which is preferred.

*(Note: Some material was borrowed from Washington State University .)

If you would like individual help in finding research materials or using a particular electronic or print resource, you may want to schedule an appointment with John Repplinger, Science Librarian, by sending him an email at [email protected] .  John specializes in the areas of biology, chemistry, computer science, environmental and earth sciences, exercise science, mathematics, physics, and the general sciences. 

In addition to scheduling a research consultation appointment with John, you will also see him at the reference/research help desk in the library (Tues 9-11am, Wed 1-3pm, & Thur 6-10pm), and during his external "office hours" in the hearths areas in Ford Hall, Collins and Olin. 

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  • v.60(9); 2016 Sep

Literature search for research planning and identification of research problem

Anju grewal.

Department of Anaesthesiology, Dayanand Medical College and Hospital, Ludhiana, Punjab, India

Hanish Kataria

1 Department of Surgery, Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh, India

2 Department of Cardiac Anaesthesia, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, India

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 abandonment of search in between if not carried out in a step-wise manner. Various databases are available for performing literature search. This article primarily stresses on how to formulate a research question, the various types and sources for literature search, which will help make your search specific and time-saving.

INTRODUCTION

Literature search is a systematic and well-organised search from the already published data to identify a breadth of good quality references on a specific topic.[ 1 ] The reasons for conducting literature search are numerous that include drawing information for making evidence-based guidelines, a step in the research method and as part of academic assessment.[ 2 ] However, the main purpose of a thorough literature search is to formulate a research question by evaluating the available literature with an eye on gaps still amenable to further research.

Research problem[ 3 ] is typically a topic of interest and of some familiarity to the researcher. It needs to be channelised by focussing on information yet to be explored. Once we have narrowed down the problem, seeking and analysing existing literature may further straighten out the research approach.

A research hypothesis[ 4 ] is a carefully created testimony of how you expect the research to proceed. It is one of the most important tools which aids to answer the research question. It should be apt containing necessary components, and raise a question that can be tested and investigated.

The literature search can be exhaustive and time-consuming, but there are some simple steps which can help you plan and manage the process. The most important are formulating the research questions and planning your search.

FORMULATING THE RESEARCH QUESTION

Literature search is done to identify appropriate methodology, design of the study; population sampled and sampling methods, methods of measuring concepts and techniques of analysis. It also helps in determining extraneous variables affecting the outcome and identifying faults or lacunae that could be avoided.

Formulating a well-focused question is a critical step for facilitating good clinical research.[ 5 ] There can be general questions or patient-oriented questions that arise from clinical issues. Patient-oriented questions can involve the effect of therapy or disease or examine advantage versus disadvantage for a group of patients.[ 6 ]

For example, we want to evaluate the effect of a particular drug (e.g., dexmedetomidine) for procedural sedation in day care surgery patients. While formulating a research question, one should consider certain criteria, referred as ‘FINER’ (F-Feasible, I-Interesting, N-Novel, E-Ethical, R-Relevant) criteria.[ 5 ] The idea should be interesting and relevant to clinical research. It should either confirm, refute or add information to already done research work. One should also keep in mind the patient population under study and the resources available in a given set up. Also the entire research process should conform to the ethical principles of research.

The patient or study population, intervention, comparison or control arm, primary outcome, timing of measurement of outcome (PICOT) is a well-known approach for framing a leading research question.[ 7 , 8 ] Dividing the questions into key components makes it easy and searchable. In this case scenario:

  • Patients (P) – What is the important group of patients? for example, day care surgery
  • Intervention (I) – What is the important intervention? for example, intravenous dexmedetomidine
  • Comparison (C) – What is the important intervention of comparison? for example, intravenous ketamine
  • Outcome (O) – What is the effect of intervention? for example, analgesic efficacy, procedural awareness, drug side effects
  • Time (T) – Time interval for measuring the outcome: Hourly for first 4 h then 4 hourly till 24 h post-procedure.

Multiple questions can be formulated from patient's problem and concern. A well-focused question should be chosen for research according to significance for patient interest and relevance to our knowledge. Good research questions address the lacunae in available literature with an aim to impact the clinical practice in a constructive manner. There are limited outcome research and relevant resources, for example, electronic database system, database and hospital information system in India. Even when these factors are available, data about existing resources is not widely accessible.[ 9 ]

TYPES OF MEDICAL LITERATURE

(Further details in chapter ‘Types of studies and research design’ in this issue).

Primary literature

Primary sources are the authentic publication of an expert's new evidence, conclusions and proposals (case reports, clinical trials, etc) and are usually published in a peer-reviewed journal. Preliminary reports, congress papers and preprints also constitute primary literature.[ 2 ]

Secondary literature

Secondary sources are systematic review articles or meta-analyses where material derived from primary source literature are infererred and evaluated.[ 2 ]

Tertiary literature

Tertiary literature consists of collections that compile information from primary or secondary literature (eg., reference books).[ 2 ]

METHODS OF LITERATURE SEARCH

There are various methods of literature search that are used alone or in combination [ Table 1 ]. For past few decades, searching the local as well as national library for books, journals, etc., was the usual practice and still physical literature exploration is an important component of any systematic review search process.[ 10 , 11 ] With the advancement of technology, the Internet is now the gateway to the maze of vast medical literature.[ 12 ] Conducting a literature review involves web-based search engines, i.e., Google, Google Scholar, etc., [ Table 2 ], or using various electronic research databases to identify materials that describe the research topic or those homologous to it.[ 13 , 14 ]

Methods of literature search

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Web based methods of literature search

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The various databases available for literature search include databases for original published articles in the journals [ Table 2 ] and evidence-based databases for integrated information available as systematic reviews and abstracts [ Table 3 ].[ 12 , 14 ] Most of these are not freely available to the individual user. PubMed ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/ ) is the largest available resource since 1996; however, a large number of sources now provide free access to literature in the biomedical field.[ 15 ] More than 26 million citations from Medline, life science journals and online books are included in PubMed. Links to the full-text material are included in citations from PubMed Central and publisher web sites.[ 16 ] The choice of databases depends on the subject of interest and potential coverage by the different databases. Education Resources Information Centre is a free online digital library of education research and information sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education, available at http://eric.ed.gov/ . No one database can search all the medical literature. There is need to search several different databases. At a minimum, PubMed or Medline, Embase and the Cochrane central trials Registry need to be searched. When searching these databases, emphasis should be given to meta-analysis, systematic reviews randomised controlled trials and landmark studies.

Electronic source of Evidence-Based Database

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Time allocated to the search needs attention as exploring and selecting data are early steps in the research method and research conducted as part of academic assessment have narrow timeframes.[ 17 ] In Indian scenario, limited outcome research and accessibility to data leads to less thorough knowledge of nature of research problem. This results in the formulation of the inappropriate research question and increases the time to literature search.

TYPES OF SEARCH

Type of search can be described in different forms according to the subject of interest. It increases the chances of retrieving relevant information from a search.

Translating research question to keywords

This will provide results based on any of the words specified; hence, they are the cornerstone of an effective search. Synonyms/alternate terms should be considered to elicit further information, i.e., barbiturates in place of thiopentone. Spellings should also be taken into account, i.e., anesthesia in place of anaesthesia (American and British). Most databases use controlled word-stock to establish common search terms (or keywords). Some of these alternative keywords can be looked from database thesaurus.[ 4 ] Another strategy is combining keywords with Boolean operators. It is important to keep a note of keywords and methods used in exploring the literature as these will need to be described later in the design of search process.

‘Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) is the National Library of Medicine's controlled hierarchical vocabulary that is used for indexing articles in PubMed, with more specific terms organised underneath more general terms’.[ 17 ] This provides a reliable way to retrieve citations that use different terminology for identical ideas, as it indexes articles based on content. Two features of PubMed that can increase yield of specific articles are ‘Automatic term mapping’ and ‘automatic term explosion’.[ 4 ]

For example, if the search keyword is heart attack, this term will match with MeSH transcription table heading and then explode into various subheadings. This helps to construct the search by adding and selecting MeSH subheadings and families of MeSH by use of hyperlinks.[ 4 ]

We can set limits to a clinical trial for retrieving higher level of evidence (i.e., randomised controlled clinical trial). Furthermore, one can browse through the link entitled ‘Related Articles’. This PubMed feature searches for similar citations using an intricate algorithm that scans titles, abstracts and MeSH terms.[ 4 ]

Phrase search

This will provide pages with only the words typed in the phrase, in that exact order and with no words in between them.

Boolean operators

AND, OR and NOT are the three Boolean operators named after the mathematician George Boole.[ 18 ] Combining two words using ‘AND’ will fetch articles that mention both the words. Using ‘OR’ will widen the search and fetch more articles that mention either subject. While using the term ‘NOT’ to combine words will fetch articles containing the first word but not the second, thus narrowing the search.

Filters can also be used to refine the search, for example, article types, text availability, language, age, sex and journal categories.

Overall, the recommendations for methodology of literature search can be as below (Creswell)[ 19 ]

  • Identify keywords and use them to search articles from library and internet resources as described above
  • Search several databases to search articles related to your topic
  • Use thesaurus to identify terms to locate your articles
  • Find an article that is similar to your topic; then look at the terms used to describe it, and use them for your search
  • Use databases that provide full-text articles (free through academic libraries, Internet or for a fee) as much as possible so that you can save time searching for your articles
  • If you are examining a topic for the first time and unaware of the research on it, start with broad syntheses of the literature, such as overviews, summaries of the literature on your topic or review articles
  • Start with the most recent issues of the journals, and look for studies about your topic and then work backward in time. Follow-up on references at the end of the articles for more sources to examine
  • Refer books on a single topic by a single author or group of authors or books that contain chapters written by different authors
  • Next look for recent conference papers. Often, conference papers report the latest research developments. Contact authors of pertinent studies. Write or phone them, asking if they know of studies related to your area of interest
  • The easy access and ability to capture entire articles from the web make it attractive. However, check these articles carefully for authenticity and quality and be cautious about whether they represent systematic research.

The whole process of literature search[ 20 ] is summarised in Figure 1 .

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Process of literature search

Literature search provides not only an opportunity to learn more about a given topic but provides insight on how the topic was studied by previous analysts. It helps to interpret ideas, detect shortcomings and recognise opportunities. In short, systematic and well-organised research may help in designing a novel research.

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Searching the literature: a guide to comprehensive searching in the health sciences.

  • Formulate your question
  • Precision vs. Sensitivity
  • Gather synonyms
  • Construct strategy using OR/AND

Using AND/OR (aka Boolean Operators) to Construct Search Strategy

Visualize your search strategy - 2 options.

  • Use subject headings & textwords
  • Choose your database(s)
  • Conduct your search
  • Test Your Search
  • Translating your Search
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We use Boolean Operators (OR, AND) to combine search terms in library databases.

Boolean Operators:

  • are required to turn a research question into a query the database can understand
  • make searching more efficient
  • enable searchers to combine dozens of queries into one

Let's use the below example question to see how Boolean Operators are applied. 

Search sets are combined logically using AND or OR.

  • OR: combines terms for the same concept e.g. teenagers OR adolescents OR youth  
  • AND: combines different concepts e.g. teenagers AND substance abuse

Note: You can also use brackets to group concepts and force an order of operations.  

This forms the basic skeleton of your search strategy. It's often helpful to express your skeleton strategy as a venn diagram or as a chart (see below). 

Option 1: Venn Diagram

You might find drawing a venn diagram helpful when constructing your search strategy. Underline your major concept in each circle, list all your synonyms below each each concept and then identify the overlap where you will find the most relevant literature. 

Venn diagram with relevant records at the centre. Each circle has a concept (RCTs concept; children concept; substance abuse concept) and the intersecting sections show how the two concepts interact.

Image from  Cochrane Handbook  Section 6.4.a: Combining concepts as search sets

Option 2: Chart

You may also choose to organize your thoughts into a chart, as shown below.

Concepts : Substance Abuse | Teenagers | Randomized Controlled Trials

 Search Strategies Must Always be Tailored to the Database!

  • vendor/interface differences (ex. OVID vs. EBSCO vs ProQuest)
  • subject headings versus keyword-only (ex. MEDLINE vs. SCOPUS)
  • peer-reviewed content only (MEDLINE:yes, CINAHL:no)
  • different controlled vocabularies (ex. Medline - MeSH vs. Embase - EMTREE vs. CINAHL - Headings)  
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Literature Reviews

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What is a literature review?

Why conduct a literature review, stages of a literature review, lit reviews: an overview (video), check out these books.

  • Types of reviews
  • 1. Define your research question
  • 2. Plan your search
  • 3. Search the literature
  • 4. Organize your results
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what is literature search in library

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what is literature search in library

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 academic literature.

Identifying Gaps: Aims to pinpoint areas where there is a lack of research or unresolved questions, highlighting opportunities for further investigation.

Contextualization: Enables researchers to understand how their work fits into the broader academic conversation and contributes to the existing body of knowledge.

what is literature search in library

tl;dr  A literature review critically examines and synthesizes existing scholarly research and publications on a specific topic to provide a comprehensive understanding of the current state of knowledge in the field.

What is a literature review NOT?

❌ An annotated bibliography

❌ Original research

❌ A summary

❌ Something to be conducted at the end of your research

❌ An opinion piece

❌ A chronological compilation of studies

The reason for conducting a literature review is to:

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Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students

While this 9-minute video from NCSU is geared toward graduate students, it is useful for anyone conducting a literature review.

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Writing the literature review: A practical guide

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Writing literature reviews: A guide for students of the social and behavioral sciences

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So, you have to write a literature review: A guided workbook for engineers

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Telling a research story: Writing a literature review

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The literature review: Six steps to success

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Systematic approaches to a successful literature review

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Literature Search

NIH Librarians will conduct a thorough search that can include specialty databases not publicly available. Animal welfare, systematic reviews, and protocol support are a few of the specialized searches you may request. 

Request a literature search

Systematic Reviews

NIH Library Informationists and Librarians regularly serve as part of systematic review teams. NIH Library Informationists and Librarians are skilled at:

  • Conducting the literature searches
  • Documenting the search process
  • Managing the search results
  • Writing the methodology section of the review and reporting results according to  PRISMA guidelines  or other appropriate standards, and
  • Editing the manuscript to conform to the requirements of the target journal.

Additionally, they can aid with other components of a systematic review such as establishing inclusion criteria, selection of software for screening or data extraction, writing and editing of a manuscript and other tasks, as determined by need and staff knowledge. A full list of services available is included below.

These services are provided to NIH and HHS customers by a NIH Library Informationist or Librarian.  Request a consultation  to discuss your systematic review.

Protocol Support

The NIH Library Protocol Support Service provides searching, consultations, and resources for developing the literature and research components of protocol development and scientific review. Librarians work with individuals to develop complex, focused searches for both clinical and animal protocols. Librarians are available to attend protocol team meetings and provide support throughout the protocol process.

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Grey Literature

  • What is Grey Literature? Activities
  • Why Use Grey Literature?
  • Types of Grey Literature
  • Sources of Grey Literature
  • Searching for Grey Literature
  • Evaluating Grey Literature Activity
  • How to Incorporate & Cite Grey Literature

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What is Grey Literature?

Describing grey literature in its entirety is more challenging than outlining what it isn't. Grey literature encompasses various media, resources, documents, and data that diverge from the conventional academic or commercial publishing pathways, often termed "white literature." If a resource lacks publication in a scholarly journal, it likely falls within the realm of grey literature. Unlike white literature, grey Literature doesn't undergo peer review and typically avoids publication in books or scholarly journals. Today, most grey literature is disseminated digitally through PDFs, web pages, blog posts, and multimedia content. Unlike academic publishing, grey literature authors are not required to possess extensive field experience, though recognized experts or organizations often author the most credible pieces. Grey literature spans a broad spectrum—it's not necessarily always factual or nonfactual, nor is it constrained to a purely professional or casual tone.

what is literature search in library

  • A local government's report on the city's water quality
  • The front page news story from a national news company***
  • An engineering PhD candidate's dissertation on keyword latency  
  • The state government's crime statistics from the last year
  • A pamphlet from the Forest Service on the history of a national park
  • A report from an international non-governmental organization (NGO) on modern slavery
  • A blog post from a well-known academic on a new theory concerning her field
  • Tweets from protestors involved in the Arab Spring demonstrations 
  • Court transcripts and other legal documents

All these items can be helpful in research, but using, evaluating, and finding good grey literature can be challenging. This guide is designed to help users understand and navigate the complexities of this special literature. 

***Some do not consider news grey literature because it comes from a commercial publishing system. Still, others do because it is not peer-reviewed or necessarily written by experts in the field. This guide includes news media as grey literature because it is not peer-reviewed and can be evaluated using the same methods as grey literature.

What is "Scholarly" and "Peer Reviewed"?

Scholarly sources (also referred to as academic, peer-reviewed, or refereed sources) are written by experts in a particular field and keep others interested in that field up to date on the most recent research, findings, and news.

When a source has been peer-reviewed, it has undergone the review and scrutiny of a review board of colleagues in the author’s field. They evaluate this source as part of the body of research for a particular discipline and make recommendations regarding its publication in a journal, revisions before publication, or, in some cases, reject its publication.

In essence, when a work is scholarly and peer-reviewed, the work of evaluating a resource is done by the publisher, and the resource user does not have to spend too much time evaluating it themselves. This is extremely useful as it ensures the information is factual. However, the process of peer review is far from perfect; it has its own set of biases and issues with diversity; it is a lengthy process, and scholarly and peer-reviewed works are often expensive to access.

When resources are not peer-reviewed, the work of evaluating the resources falls almost entirely on the user. Grey literature is typically only reviewed for accuracy by their organization, and the process varies widely from organization to organization if they have one at all. The users reading the information cannot be sure if anyone has reviewed the facts presented in grey literature and if the organizations' biases have distorted the facts.  

Activity: What is Grey Literature?

Use the interactive module below to test your knowledge of grey literature!

Activity: Grey Literature Drag and Drop

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Poetry & Short Story Reference Center provides information on thousands of poets and short story authors and their works across literary themes, forms, techniques, and movements; includes biographies, critical analyses, contextual essays, and explications of important works. It is useful for background information, but much of the content is not considered scholarly.

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Use of Libraries, Literature Search and Review

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The objectives of this chapter are to

Describe the use of the library and specify how to research using it;

Define the terms literature search and review;

Outline the importance of literature search and review;

Specify and briefly describe the sources of archival literature;

Specify and describe the types of publications; and

Define the term search strategy and specify the approaches to literature search.

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Lues, L., & Lategan, L. O. K. (2006). RE: Search ABC (1st ed.). Sun Press.

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Walliman, N. (2011). Your research project: Designing and planning your work . Sage Publications Ltd.

Bell, J. (2010). Doing your research project: A guide for first-time researchers in education and social science (5th ed.). Open University Press.

Baker, S. (1999). Finding and searching information sources. In Doing your research project: A guide for first-time researchers in education and social science (Ch. 5, 3rd ed.). Open University Press.

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A collection of tutorials that will help you understand how to search and use our library resources.

what is literature search in library

Transparent Languages for Libraries

Online language learning system.

what is literature search in library

EBSCO eBook Collection

EBSCO eBook Collection is a collection of over 3000 online books and resource materials available through the web. Many different subject areas are covered including business, buying and selling a home, careers, complete idiot's guides, computer how to books, consumer health, consumer law, psychology, self help, sports coaching, sports how to books, study guides, travel, and web development. Note: The EBSCO eBook Academic Collection is included in this large resource.

EBSCO eBook Collection Tutorial

what is literature search in library

Database system that provides access to many full-text databases, other resources, and ebooks.

Best Bet Databases for Articles

Abstracts from books, articles and documents from the Education Resources Information Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Hosted on the EBSCOhost platform.

Text and images from leading journals in the field of education, covering the literature on primary, secondary, and higher education; also includes such areas as special education, home schooling, adult education, and hundreds of related topics.

Designed for professional educators, this database provides a highly specialized collection of 520 high quality education journals, including nearly 350 peer-reviewed titles. This database also contains more than 200 educational reports. Professional Development Collection is the most comprehensive collection of full text education journals in the world. Hosted on the EBSCOhost platform.

Provides indexing and abstracts for 280 of the most popular teacher and administrator journals and magazines to assist professional educators. Hosted on the EBSCOhost platform.

Kids/Teens/Adults Books from NOBLE OverDrive Database | Libby App

  • OverDrive This link opens in a new window 24/7 access to Salem State and NOBLE library consoritum's digital collection of popular and academic eBooks and audiobooks available for downloading and streaming. View tutorial:

OverDrive Kids NOBLE

what is literature search in library

Sing in as a NOBLE library patron. Use your SSU Clippercard barcode number which is in the back of your ClipperCard.

what is literature search in library

Libby is a free app where you can borrow ebooks, digital audiobooks, and magazines from your SSU or public library

             

Teaching Books: Search Children's Literature Resources

Teachingbooks (prek-12).

TeachingBooks.net is an easy-to-use website that adds a multimedia dimension to the reading experiences of children's and young adult books. This one stop database provides resources for books you are reading and teaching, including author and illustrator interviews, lesson plans, and other enrichment content.

How to access TeachingBooks Database?  Log in here: Please use your SSU student email to create an account  or go to  TeachingBooks.net/SignIn

Username:  salemstate Password:  reads! (case-insensitive)

what is literature search in library

Social Justice Subject Heading Resources

Children's Literature and Social Justice Book Awards:

Coretta Scott King Book Awards, 1970-2021

Pura belpré awards, 1996-2021, anti-racist reading list: raise your voice: activism and protest.

Jane Addams Children's Book Awards, 1953-2022

Boston Public Library eCard and Online Resources

Boston Public eCard Registration: Sign up for an eCard

Boston Public Library Kids Online Resource s

Scholastic BookFlix

BookFlix is a literacy resource that pairs interactive, fictional video storybooks with related nonfiction eBooks for kids 3-9 years old.

Scholastic Teachables

An online hub of 30,000 ready-to-use printable learning resources for every subject, pre-K to 6th grade.

A curricular content hub for K-2 students. Informational articles, activities, and literacy support for students.

Online math eBooks, grades K-6.

OverDrive for Kids

Downloadable eBooks and audiobooks for children, including Boston Public Schools summer reading lists.

NoveList K-8 Plus

Helps kids find books that are just right for their reading level and interests. Parents, teachers, and librarians can also find tools to teach with books and engage young readers.

Gale In Context: Elementary

Designed for children in kindergarten through grade 5, this resource includes reference books, news and magazine articles, and audiovisual materials covering a wide range of topics, as well as teacher resources and a translation tool.

Gale In Context: Middle School

Designed for middle school students, this resource includes magazine and news articles, reference books, primary sources, and audiovisual materials covering a wide range of topics, as well as research and writing tips and teacher resources.

Kanopy includes acclaimed movies and documentaries on-demand from award-winning filmmakers. Browse the collection of over 30,000 documentaries, classic films, world cinema, popular movies and films for children of all ages. Users can watch up to 6 titles per calendar month.

Why are databases and why you need them?

Salem State University Library TeachingBooks l ink.

Finding the Right Books at Every Level

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Search Site

Search catalog, reading & resource series: her body and other parties: author and literature.

  • Author and Literature

Author's Profile

From UofL's Contemporary Authors  database

Screenshot of bio on author Carmen Maria Machado

Literary Profiles, Criticisms, Reviews, and More:

  • Contemporary Authors Provides biographical details on thousands of modern novelists, poets, playwrights, nonfiction writers, journalists and scriptwriters.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography Signed essays written by scholars provide essential context for understanding the careers and writings of more than 12,000 authors from all time periods and from all parts of the world.
  • JSTOR Full-text journal articles relating to African-American studies, anthropology, Asian studies, botany, ecology, economics, education, finance, history, literature, mathematics, philosophy, political science, sociology and statistics. 1600s - present.
  • Literature Online (LION) Combines the texts of over 355,000 literary works with key criticism and reference resources. 1603 - present.
  • MLA International Bibliography Indexes books and articles on modern languages and literature, linguistics, folklore, and other related topics. 1926 - present.
  • Novelist A comprehensive readers' advisory solution for fiction lovers. With an intuitive interface and extensive proprietary content, NoveList answers the question: What should I read next?

Ask-A-Librarian

what is literature search in library

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Read-alikes.

Enjoyed Her Body and Other Parties  and interested in similar reads? Check out these Read-Alikes, suggested by UofL's Novelist database.

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SOCI 347: Asian Sociotechnical Imaginaries

  • INTRODUCTION
  • Lit Review Strategies
  • Articles, Databases & Policy
  • Newspaper & Magazines
  • Data & Statistics
  • WORKING WITH SOURCES
  • CITING & MANAGING SOURCES
  • SAGE Research Methods Books, reference works, journal articles, instructional videos, and data sets; large collection of qualitative methods books
  • Synthesis Grid Templates Synthesis grids are organizational tools for recording the main concepts of your sources and can help with connecting your sources to one another. This template provides a search log and four different organizational frameworks for keeping track of your sources. Select the grid that most closely meets your needs; add or delete columns as you wish. Download or create your own copy to begin using.

Literature Reviews

  • Search Strategies
  • Planning Your Search
  • Literature Reviews Defined
  • Steps to a Successful Review

You will likely go through the search process a number of times, performing different searches with different keyword combinations, to address the different components of your literature review. 

1. Tentative Research Question

2. Search Terms: Main Concepts,  Related Keywords, Variables & Measurements

The main concepts in your research question are your first set of search terms.  You will likely need to add synonyms,  related, broader or narrower terms to your search; also consider search terms related to your variables or measurements. 

A series of searches with different search terms will help you retrieve a range of relevant research so you can address the various aspects of your literature review. List some potential search terms below.

3. Consider the sources or evidence will you need to support your project.

Are there specific perspectives you want to include? What databases or search tools are most relevant to the types of sources or evidence you need? 

4. Try a practice search in Sociological Abstracts or another database with your search terms.

Based on skimming articles titles and text, what other terminology is related to your search terms? Any relevant subject headings?  What other terminology could you use in future searches?   

  • View the article’s references. Do any of these articles look relevant? 
  • View the article’s citing articles. Do any of these articles look relevant? 

5. Scholars or Experts 

Are scholars or experts mentioned in the text of the articles you are reading or are they the authors of the article?  Can you identify who are the  expert researchers in this area? Are you seeing the same authors appear in your search results?

6. Repeat & Next Steps

What are your next steps? How might you revise your search to obtain more relevant sources or, to address the different components of your literature review?

A "literature review" can refer to your final product (part of a paper/ article or a stand-alone publication) and describes the process of conducting the review. 

A literature review includes: 

  • Research theory & philosophy - to establish the intellectual context(s) of research related to your topic/ research question. 
  • History of developments in your subject - to trace the background to present day thinking.
  • Latest research and developments in your subject - to inform and practice, to discuss the conflicting arguments, and to detect a gap in knowledge.
  • Research methods - to explore practical techniques that have been used, particularly those that might be relevant to your project. 

From Walliman, Nicholas. 2018.  Research Methods : the Basics . Second edition. Abingdon, Oxon.

What Makes a Successful Literature Review?

  • Search terms : Formulate appropriate search terms as the basis for your literature searches.
  • Database search tools : Use database search tools to identify relevant journal articles and related materials.
  • Key publications : Identify a series of key publications in your area and use these as the bases for citation reference searches.
  • Additional search tools : Use search tools to identify pieces of interest, in particular grey literature, relevant to you (e.g. Google Scholar.)
  • Scanning : Scan abstracts of articles, reviews of books, executive summaries of government reports, and other summaries of published work to determine if you need to read the piece in full.
  • Reading : Read the pieces you have identified and make notes from them. A synthesis grid may be useful for note taking and for facilitating writing the review.
  • Note, a chronological or methodological organization may align better with your research question.
  • Writing the review:  Write the review, based on your organizational framework, in such a way that you can construct one or more interesting research questions which you will address in your investigation.

From Byrne, D. (2017). What makes a successful literature review?.  Project Planner . 10.4135/9781526408518.

  • Questions to Consider

What are the key sources? What are the key theories, concepts and ideas? 	What are the epistemological and ontological grounds for the discipline? What are the main questions and problems that have been addressed?&nbsp; 	How is knowledge on the topic structures and organized? What are the origins and definitions of the topic? What are the political standpoints? What are the major issues and debates about the topic? How have approaches to these questions increased our understanding and knowledge

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IMAGES

  1. The Literature Search Process

    what is literature search in library

  2. PPT

    what is literature search in library

  3. We Review ‘Semantic Scholar’: An AI-Powered Literature Searching Tool

    what is literature search in library

  4. How to search the literature effectively: a step by step guide to

    what is literature search in library

  5. What does a Lit Review Look Like?

    what is literature search in library

  6. The Importance of Literature Review in Scientific Research Writing

    what is literature search in library

COMMENTS

  1. Literature searching explained

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

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

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Literature Searching Explained

    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

  6. Major Steps in a Literature Search

    Literature searches are an iterative process. You may discover new keywords and articles through the references and citations that you find. Keep track and document all of the subject terms or keywords used and all of the search strategies that you use as you may want or need to re-use a successful search strategy.

  7. LibGuides: Research skills: Searching the literature

    Searching the literature Welcome to this module about how to find what you need when searching academic literature In this section we will look at the steps that make up an effective literature searching strategy: Planning your search - working out what you want to look for and where you might find it

  8. How to do a Literature Search: Introduction

    A literature search is an organised way of finding articles and other publications to discuss in your literature review. Literature searching is an iterative process, which means that you normally need to repeat the process a number of times before achieving your goal. It goes something like this:

  9. Home

    Watch on What is a literature search? A literature search is a systematic search of all relevant literature on a specific topic. The literature search provides evidence to support many academic and clinical functions.

  10. Literature searching

    See our Library Skills Essentials guide for support materials and guidance for planning your search, including understanding and defining your topic, ... When you carry out a literature search you may need to search multiple resources (see Sources and Resources). Your search strategy will need to be adjusted depending on the resource you are using.

  11. What is Literature Searching?

    Most formal literature searches in the academic context are performed in library databases. Literature Searching Process Literature searching might seem intimidating because of the sheer amount of information available, but everyone can conduct a literature search by following these steps.

  12. A systematic approach to searching: an efficient and complete method to

    A systematic approach to searching an efficient and complete method to develop literature searches is a crucial skill for researchers and practitioners. This article presents a comprehensive and practical guide to design and conduct effective searches in various databases, using techniques such as truncation, Boolean operators, and PICOT framework.

  13. Searching the Literature: The Basics

    A literature search is the act of gathering existing knowledge or data around a topic or research question. Regardless of the purpose of your literature search, all searches follow the same basic process: Ask a question Select a search resource Develop search terms Execute the search Access results Evaluate & improve your search

  14. Home

    A literature review is a systematic examination of the scholarly literature about one's topic. It critically analyzes, evaluates, and synthesizes research findings, theories, and practices by scholars and researchers that are related to an area of focus.

  15. How to undertake a literature search

    Library Search, as mentioned in Step 1 can be helpful for simple searches. If your search is for a more in-depth assignment such as a dissertation, you will need to look at other databases. The RCN Library and Archive Service (LAS) offers their members access to CINAHL, British Nursing Index and MEDLINE which are useful for nursing topics.

  16. Defining the process to literature searching in systematic reviews: a

    Background Systematic literature searching is recognised as a critical component of the systematic review process. It involves a systematic search for studies and aims for a transparent report of study identification, leaving readers clear about what was done to identify studies, and how the findings of the review are situated in the relevant evidence. Information specialists and review teams ...

  17. PDF Use of Libraries, Literature Search and Review

    Define the terms literature search and review; Outline the importance of literature search and review; Specify and briefly describe the sources of archival literature; Specify and describe the types of publications; and Define the term search strategy and specify the approaches to literature search.

  18. Commerce Research Library: Literature Search: Getting Started

    The purpose of a literature search is to locate all relevant materials on a particular topic, including books, journal articles, reports, and conference papers. Prior to beginning a search, library users should complete several steps, including: Formulating a topic that is neither too narrow nor too broad; Developing appropriate search terms; and

  19. Literature Search Strategies: Main

    Google Scholar is the search engine to use when looking for scholarly literature, including abstracts, citations and papers. The most relevant results should appear on the first page. More info about Google Scholar below. Google News Archive makes it easy to search historical archives.

  20. 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. ... For past few decades, searching the local as well as national library ...

  21. Searching the Literature: A Guide to Comprehensive Searching in the

    You might find drawing a venn diagram helpful when constructing your search strategy. Underline your major concept in each circle, list all your synonyms below each each concept and then identify the overlap where you will find the most relevant literature. Image from Cochrane Handbook Section 6.4.a: Combining concepts as search sets. Option 2 ...

  22. 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 ...

  23. Literature Search

    The NIH Library Protocol Support Service provides searching, consultations, and resources for developing the literature and research components of protocol development and scientific review. Librarians work with individuals to develop complex, focused searches for both clinical and animal protocols.

  24. Research Guides: Grey Literature: What is Grey Literature?

    Grey literature encompasses various media, resources, documents, and data that diverge from the conventional academic or commercial publishing pathways, often termed "white literature." If a resource lacks publication in a scholarly journal, it likely falls within the realm of grey literature.

  25. Library Guides: Literature and Writing Research: Databases and journal

    resources to support literature and writing research. Poetry & Short Story Reference Center provides information on thousands of poets and short story authors and their works across literary themes, forms, techniques, and movements; includes biographies, critical analyses, contextual essays, and explications of important works. It is useful for background information, but much of the content ...

  26. Use of Libraries, Literature Search and Review

    3.6 Chapter Summary. The use of the library and scholarly web-based search may offer quick access to the archival literature, which is always ordered according to its date of publication and disciplines. A literature search and review is an essential component in the design and implementation of a research project.

  27. Databases

    EBSCO eBook Collection. EBSCO eBook Collection is a collection of over 3000 online books and resource materials available through the web. Many different subject areas are covered including business, buying and selling a home, careers, complete idiot's guides, computer how to books, consumer health, consumer law, psychology, self help, sports coaching, sports how to books, study guides, travel ...

  28. Author and Literature

    The Heart and Other Viscera by Félix J. Palma The New York Times bestselling author of the "supernatural tour de force" (M.J. Rose, bestselling author) The Map of Time crafts an enchanting collection of twelve evocative and macabre stories delving into the magical, ordinary, and darker aspects of love in all its powerful forms. A young girl receives letters from her lost doll; a cat madly in ...

  29. SOCI 347: Asian Sociotechnical Imaginaries

    Additional search tools: Use search tools to identify pieces of interest, in particular grey literature, relevant to you (e.g. Google Scholar.) Scanning : Scan abstracts of articles, reviews of books, executive summaries of government reports, and other summaries of published work to determine if you need to read the piece in full.