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St. Joseph's Medical Center: Research Guides

How to Conduct Literature Searches

Literature search is a comprehensive exploration of published literature with the purpose of finding scholarly articles on a specific topic. There are several ways involved in conduction a literature search. You may discover more along the way, but the steps below will provide a good foundation. 

1. Formulate a clear, well-defined, answerable search question— PICO

Asking the right research question is essential to creating an effective search. Using PICO (T) guides you in your search for evidence and may even help you be more efficient in your process. P= Popularion (Patient), I= intervention, C= Comparison, O= Outcome, T= Time (Click here to learn all about PICO(T)). 

2. Identify primary concepts and a database to search

Your research question will also help identify the primary search concepts. You will need to gather synonyms and all the ways authors might express them. For your search, you will need to consult a variety of databases to conduct a search on your topic. At SJMC, PubMed, Library Discovery (Literature Seach box) are available to search.  They contain large number of citation and have fairly broad scope 

3. Conduct your search—Keywords, Controlled Vocabulary (MeSH)

Use the key words that you’ve identified from your PICO(T) question to start searching.  You might start your search broadly, with just a few key words, and add more once you see the scope of the literature. If the initial search doesn’t produce many results, you can play with removing some key words and adding more Subject Headings.  In PubMed and MEDLINE, the subject headings are called Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). By including MeSH terms in your search, you will not have to think about word variations, word endings, plural or singular forms, or synonyms.

4. Combine concepts using Boolean operators AND/OR

Once you have identified your search concepts, synonyms, and MeSH terms, you'll need to put them together using nesting and Boolean operators (e.g. AND, OR, NOT– capitalized). Nesting uses parentheses to put search terms into groups. Boolean operators are used to combine similar and different concepts into one query. 

5. Refine search results in PubMed—Filters

Use filters to help you refine your search, rather than adding those keywords to the search. Filters include article/publication type, age, language, publication years, and species.

6. Organize your results—MyNCBI, EndNote

As you begin to collect articles during your literature search, it is important to store them in an organized fashion. In PubMed, MyNCBI allows you to save searches and results and include other features that help you save PubMed citations to your articles. A number of reference managers—such as ZoteroEndNote, MendeleyRefWorks, and Papers are available. EndNote X9 and 20 are available for GME. Contact SJMC Research Director or Medical Librarian, if you are interested in getting a product key to download EndNote.

References: Stanford libguide at  authored by Connie Wong &

University of Utah ’s Accelerate learning Community at authored by Tallie Casucci and Barbara Wilson

PICO Framework of Unviersity of Canbbera Library LibGuides at