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

An evidence based approach to care


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

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

Here are six easy steps to help you get started.

1. Define your search question


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

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

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

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

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

2. Think about the search terms to use


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

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

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

Here’s a list of keywords for our example.

Older people Frailty End of life Advance care planning
Elderly Frail elderly Palliative Anticipatory care planning
Aged   Hospice Advance directives
Old people   Death  

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

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

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

3. Decide how to combine the concepts


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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Think about any limits you want to apply


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

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

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

5. Decide which literature databases to use


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

6. Manage your references


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

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

Useful resources


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

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

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

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