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Barwon Health Library Service: Searching for Literature

Evidence for Excellence

Searching for the Literature

A literature search is a systematic thorough search of all types of literature in your area.  Searching should be done on specific research databases to ensure a comprehensive search of evidence based / peer reviewed literature.

Planning your literature search involves:

  1. Clarifying your research question / what to search for 
  2. Where to search
  3. Search techniques
  4. Evaluating the information
  5. Organising the information

Book a Consultation with a librarian for further help with your literature searching.

Request a Literature Search

  • Barwon Health staff may request literature searches for patient care, teaching, professional development, research, policy/protocol development, or management purposes.
  • For staff completing assignments, the Library will assist with search strategy design and database training but will not provide a literature search service.
  • This service is only available to members of the Barwon Health Library Services. To join the library click here

1. Clarifying your Research Question

As most clinical questions are usually complex, multifaceted, and arise frequently in the course of daily clinical practice the first step in the process is to phrase your scenario as a specific, answerable question.

Constructing a well-built clinical question can lead directly to a well-built search strategy and this will help you focus on the key issues and identify what evidence you need to precisely answer your question

We have developed a Short Training module on Using PICO to create an answerable question

PICO is one type of framework to develop an evidence based practice literature search strategies.
The acronym stands for:

  • P - Patient, Problem, or Population (What is the condition or disease?)
  • I - Intervention (What do you want to do with this patient?)
  • C - Comparison, or Control, or Comparator (What is the alternative to the intervention?)
  • O - Outcome (What are the relevant outcomes?)

You can also consider alternatives to PICO. including PEO, SPIDER, COPES, ECLIPSE, PIPOH, PECODR etc) based on field of study (eg: medicine, OT, social work, speech pathology, oncology etc).

Kloda LA., Bartlett JC (2014) Formulating Answerable Questions: Question Negotiation in Evidence-based Practice. Journal of the Canadian Health Libraries Association / Journal De L’Association Des Bibliothèques De La Santé Du Canada, 34(2), 55-60. 

Contact us or Book a Consultation for more information on using PICO or other evidence based literature searching tools

2. Where to search

The library has put together a recommended list of databases for you to search for your literature

  • Research Databases - 
    • you can filter your databases to search by using dropdown menu at the top of the page.
  • Grey Literature Databases - 
    • Grey literature is defined as material created by government agencies, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not published by commercial publishers and is not indexed in bibliographic databases.

Databases for Quick Find Information

Google ScholarThis is a custom link which enables linkages to library full text content.

PubMed Clinical QueriesResults are limited to specific clinical research areas

Barwon Health Library Catalogue - Use the 'Resource Type' filter on the left-hand side of the results page to narrow results to just articles or books

Databases for Evidence Based Information

PubMed - citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Look for the Library Logo to the top right on the results page after clicking on the article title. LibKey Nomad Chrome browser extension makes accessing full text PDFs even easier through Pubmed

EMBASE- Covers the most important international biomedical literature from 1947 to the present day. Look for the Library Logo on the right for full text and article request options.

Medlineinformation on medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, the health care system, pre-clinical sciences, and much more. Look for the Library Logo on the right for full text and article request options.

Cochrane Library - is a collection of high-quality, independent evidence

CINAHL Completeprovides full text coverage to over 1,300 titles including nursing specialties, speech and language pathology, nutrition, general health and medicine and more.

PsycINFO - a database providing abstracts of peer-reviewed behavioral sciences and mental health journals, articles, books, and more

TripPROa clinical search engine designed to quickly and easily find and use high-quality research evidence to support practice and/or care.

For more suggested databases refer to the full list on this page.
Use the drop down menus at the top of the page to find the best database for your search

3. Search Techniques

By being systematic in your literature searching you will obtain results that are more relevant to your information needs.

The library has developed a Literature Searching Strategy Planner to help you to refine your search question and develop your search in a strategic way.


Keyword vs Subject Headings

When searching for information you can use either keywords or subject headings in your search strategy.

  • Keywords are:
    • natural language terms that describe your topic
  • Subject Headings are:
    • controlled vocabulary in the database to describe the concept

Which should I use?

  • Use keywords when:
    • no subject heading exists or seems inadequate 
    • the term or topic is recent or new
    • using acronyms or initialisms
    • using a localised word or phrase
  • Use subject headings:
    • to focus your search.Subject heading searches can be a bit harder as you have to find the correct subject heading for your topic but the results will be more relevant to your information needs
  • Use both keywords and subject headings:
    •  when doing a more comprehensive literature search to make sure you find everything on your topic

Boolean Language

The operators for database searching are: AND, OR, and NOT, known as Boolean operators which allow you to try different combinations of search terms or subject headings.

Databases often show Boolean operators as buttons or drop-down menus that you can click to combine your search terms or results.

AND: AND combines search terms to retrieve articles that include all of the concepts of a search. The use of AND reduces the number of search results

  • For example: Stroke AND Rehabilitation 

OR: OR combines search terms to retrieve articles that use any of the terms you are looking for. The use of OR increases the number of search results.

  • You would use OR when
    • where multiple spellings or forms exist
      • paediatrics OR pediatrics
      • physiotherapist OR physical therapist

NOT: NOT excludes terms from the set of search results

  • NOT is generally discouraged, since it can unintentionally exclude relevant articles from your results if the article discusses both concepts. The use of NOT reduces the number of search result

Book a Consultation if you need any expert assistance with your literature searching.

For more information on Evidence Based Practice and Evidence Based Literature see our Evidence Based Practice in Health information page

4. Evaluating the Information - Types of Reviews

As you start to search through the literature for evidence you will come across different types of reviews or studies which you will have have to appraise and synthesise to ensure reliability and validity
You can find more information on Evidence Based Literature on our Evidence Based Practice webpage

Some of these studies may include:

  • A Literature Review which provides an overview of a topic.
  • A Systematic Review which addresses a clinical question
  • A Meta-Analysis which combines data from other studies
  • A Narrative Literature Review which critiques and summarises a body of literature about a topic

Click on the Review types below for more information on each review type

  • Description - Aims to demonstrate writer has extensively researched literature and critically evaluated its quality. Goes beyond mere description to include degree of analysis and conceptual innovation. Typically results in hypothesis or mode.
  • Search - Seeks to identify most significant items in the field.
  • Appraisal - No formal quality assessment. Attempts to evaluate according to contribution
  • Synthesis - Typically narrative, perhaps conceptual or chronological
  • Analysis - Significant component: seeks to identify conceptual contribution to embody existing or derive new theory

  • Description - Generic term: published materials that provide examination of recent or current literature. Can cover wide range of subjects at various levels of completeness and comprehensiveness. May include research findings.
  • Search - May or may not include comprehensive searching
  • Appraisal - May or may not include quality assessment
  • Synthesis - Typically narrative
  • Analysis - Analysis may be chronological, conceptual, thematic, etc

  • Description - Map out and categorize existing literature from which to commission further reviews and/or primary research by identifying gaps in research literature
  • Search - Completeness of searching determined by time/scope constraints
  • Appraisal - No formal quality assessment
  • Synthesis - May be graphical and tabular
  • Analysis - Characterizes quantity and quality of literature, perhaps by study design and other key features. May identify need for primary or secondary research

  • Description - Technique that statistically combines the results of quantitative studies to provide a more precise effect of the results.
  • Search - Aims for exhaustive, comprehensive searching. May use funnel plot to assess completeness
  • Appraisal - Quality assessment may determine inclusion/exclusion and/or sensitivity analyses
  • Synthesis - Graphical and tabular with narrative commentary
  • Analysis - Numerical analysis of measures of effect assuming absence of heterogeneity

  • Description - Refers to any combination of methods where one significant component is a literature review (usually systematic). Within a review context it refers to a combination of review approaches for example combining quantitative with qualitative research or outcome with process studies.
  • Search - Requires either very sensitive search to retrieve all studies or separately conceived quantitative and qualitative strategies
  • Appraisal - Requires either a generic appraisal instrument or separate appraisal processes with corresponding checklists
  • Synthesis - Typically both components will be presented as narrative and in tables. May also employ graphical means of integrating quantitative and qualitative studies
  • Analysis - Analysis may characterise both literatures and look for correlations between characteristics or use gap analysis to identify aspects absent in one literature but missing in the other

  • Description - Generic term: summary of the [medical] literature that attempts to survey the literature and describe its characteristics.
  • Search - May or may not include comprehensive searching (depends whether systematic overview or not)
  • Appraisal - May or may not include quality assessment (depends whether systematic overview or not)
  • Synthesis - Synthesis depends on whether systematic or not. Typically narrative but may include tabular features
  • Analysis - Analysis may be chronological, conceptual, thematic, etc.

  • Description - Method for integrating or comparing the findings from qualitative studies. It looks for ‘themes’ or ‘constructs’ that lie in or across individual qualitative studies.
  • Search - May employ selective or purposive sampling
  • Appraisal - Quality assessment typically used to mediate messages not for inclusion/exclusion
  • Synthesis - Qualitative, narrative synthesis
  • Analysis - Thematic analysis, may include conceptual models

  • Description - Assessment of what is already known about a policy or practice issue, by using systematic review methods to search and critically appraise existing research.
  • Search - Completeness of searching determined by time constraints
  • Appraisal - Time‐limited formal quality assessment
  • Synthesis - Typically narrative and tabular
  • Analysis - Quantities of literature and overall quality/direction of effect of literature

  • Description - Preliminary assessment of potential size and scope of available research literature. Aims to identify nature and extent of research evidence (usually including ongoing research).
  • Search - Completeness of searching determined by time/scope constraints. May include research in progress
  • Appraisal - No formal quality assessment
  • Synthesis - Typically tabular with some narrative commentary
  • Analysis - Characterizes quantity and quality of literature, perhaps by study design and other key features. Attempts to specify a viable review

  • Description - Tend to address more current matters in contrast to other combined retrospective and current approaches. May offer new perspectives on issue or point out area for further research.
  • Search - Aims for comprehensive searching of current literature
  • Appraisal - No formal quality assessment
  • Synthesis - Typically narrative, may have tabular accompaniment
  • Analysis - Current state of knowledge and priorities for future investigation and research

  • Description - Seeks to systematically search for, appraise and synthesis research evidence, often adhering to guidelines on the conduct of a review.
  • Search - Aims for exhaustive, comprehensive searching
  • Appraisal - Quality assessment may determine inclusion/exclusion
  • Synthesis - Typically narrative with tabular accompaniment
  • Analysis - What is known; recommendations for practice. What remains unknown; uncertainty around findings, recommendations for future research

  • Description - Combines strengths of critical review with a comprehensive search process. Typically addresses broad questions to produce ‘best evidence synthesis’.
  • Search - Aims for exhaustive, comprehensive searching
  • Appraisal - May or may not include quality assessment
  • Synthesis - Minimal narrative, tabular summary of studies
  • Analysis - What is known; recommendations for practice. Limitations

  • Description - Attempt to include elements of systematic review process while stopping short of systematic review. Typically conducted as postgraduate student assignment.
  • Search - May or may not include comprehensive searching
  • Appraisal - May or may not include quality assessment
  • Synthesis - Typically narrative with tabular accompaniment
  • Analysis - What is known; uncertainty around findings; limitations of methodology

  • Description - Specifically refers to review compiling evidence from multiple reviews into one accessible and usable document. Focuses on broad condition or problem for which there are competing interventions and highlights reviews that address these interventions and their results.
  • Search - Identification of component reviews, but no search for primary studies
  • Appraisal - Quality assessment of studies within component reviews and/or of reviews themselves
  • Synthesis - Graphical and tabular with narrative commentary
  • Analysis - What is known; recommendations for practice. What remains unknown; recommendations for future research

Reproduced from: Grant MJ, Booth A. A typology of reviews: an analysis of 14 review types and associated methodologies. Health Info Libr J. 2009 Jun;26(2):91-108. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-1842.2009.00848.x. Review. PubMed PMID: 19490148

5. Organising the Information

RefWorks is a reference management system where you can:

  1. Collect citations
  2. Manage citations, by folder or a searchable database
  3. Cite using proper formatting in a variety of citation styles (e.g. APA, AMA, Vancouver, etc)
  4. Share research with colleagues

Since RefWorks is accessible from the web, it can be used from any computer connected to the internet.

Click Here for more information on setting up your Refworks account