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Searching the literature

A guide for staff and students undertaking a thorough literature review

Essential questions

“I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all i knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How And Where and Who.” - Rudyard KiplingBefore you start searching, take some time to think about what information gap you are trying to fill, or what question you are trying to answer. 

It can be useful to ask essential questions:

  • What?
  • Why?
  • When?
  • How?
  • When? 
  • Where?

Search concept tools

Search concept tools, also known as analytical tools, can help you to define the question you are asking. These are often used in a clinical or health research context. 

PICO(s) for Clinical questions
Population / Patient People with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease
Intervention Music therapy or Singing or Making music
Comparison Standard care or treatment as usual
Outcome Improved communication
Study design e.g. Clinical trials, qualitative methods

Richardson, W. S., Wilson, M. C., Nishikawa, J., & Hayward, R. S. A. (1995). The well-built clinical question: A key to evidence-based decisions. ACP Journal Club, 123, A12-13.

SPICE for service questions
Setting Hospital
Perspective Nurses
Intervention Information skills education


Evaluation Improved decision-making

Booth, A. (2006). Clear and present questions: formulating questions for evidence based practice. Library Hi Tech, 24(3), 355-368. doi:doi:10.1108/07378830610692127

SPIDER for qualitative questions
Sample Young parents
Phenomenon of Interest Antenatal education
Design Questionnaire or focus group
Evaluation Experiences
Research Type Qualitative or mixed methods

Cooke A; Smith D;  Booth A; Beyond PICO : The SPIDER Tool for Qualitative Evidence Synthesis – Qual Health Res. 2012; 22(10) 1435-1443

Information specialists at the University of Leeds have helpfully presented a list of search concept tools and the originating articles where they were proposed and tested.