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Searching the literature

A guide for staff and students undertaking a thorough literature review


Before you start searching for information in Library databases, it's always worth spending some time thinking about your search terms before you begin and how these will be combined. This process is known as devising your search strategy. You can then apply this across all of the databases you use. This guide takes you through the key steps in conducting a thorough literature search.

The literature search process

This guide will help students and staff undertaking a thorough review of the literature, for example as part of a dissertation. (Go here for the systematic literature review guide). While many of the examples are drawn from health, medicine and psychology, the principles apply to all subjects.

  1. Define your question, or identify your information gap
  2. Formulate the search topic and create an initial search strategy
  3. Refine the search, eg deciding on date limits or countries
  4. Establish useful keywords and thesaurus terms
  5. Identify the databases to use
  6. Test your search strategy
  7. Review your results and revise your search
  8. Conduct the search or searches
  9. "Hand-search" key journals and websites
  10. Manage your results e.g. in EndNote (or other bibliographic management software).
  11. Evaluate your results
  12. Record what you have done throughout your search
  13. Keep up-to-date with new literature on your topic

Doing a systematic literature search

diagram showing the search process cycleIf you are undertaking a systematic literature review, or a systematic review in Health, Medicine or Clinical Psychology and need to learn more about the literature searching part we have developed a new guide which contains more detailed advice than this one. 

Literature searching refresher for health researchers

This video provides a demonstration of key skills for literature searching such as conducting keyword searches, using subject headings, combining search sets and managing references within databases and in EndNote.