Literature Searching

7 Steps to the perfect search:

  1. Formulate your question - Using PICO or similar search concept tool
  2. Identify keywords for each PICO element
  3. Plan the search strategy
  4. Execute the search
  5. Refine the results
  6. Review the literature
  7. Assess the evidence

Formulate your question

Using a search planner helps you formulate your research question and better understand the type of information you are looking for. A good research question is researchable, you don't already know the answer to it, it is reasonable and clearly focused.  Three search concept tools you may find helpful are;




Search concept tools for developing research questions

PICO – Reviews of interventions for health

P Patient or population

I Intervention

C Comparator or Control

O Outcomes

Example Question: What is the accuracy of clinical tests to diagnose superior labral anterior or posterior lesion in adults? (Mirkovic et al. 2005)

Richardson, W.S., Wilson, M.C., Nishikawa, J., & Hayward, R.S. (1995). The well-built clinical question: A key to evidence-based decisions.  ACP Journal Club, 123(3) A12-A12.

ECLIPSE – Health service management searches

E Expectation - what does the search requester want the information for?

C Client Group - who is the service aimed at?

L Location - where is the service sited?

I Impact - what is the change in the service, if any, which is being looked for? What would constitute success? How is this being measured?

P Professionals - who delivered the service?

S Service - for which service are you looking for information? For example, outpatient services, nurse-led clinics, intermediate care.

Wildrige, V., & Bell, L. 2002. How CLIP became ECLIPSE: a mnemonic to assist in searching for health policy/management information. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 19(2) 113-5DOI:

Example Question: How can the discharge procedure from the hospital to the community for people with head injuries be improved?

SPIDER– Qualitative evidence synthesis

S Sample

P I Phenomenon of interest

D Design

E Evaluation

R Research type

Cooke, A., Smith, D., & Booth, A. 2012.  Beyond PICO : The SPIDER Tool for Qualitative Evidence Synthesis. Qualitative Health Research, 22(10) 1435-1443

Plan your search strategy

Determine which database(s) to search. A database guide is available here

Use the following Information search planner to identify major elements of your question and translate natural language terms to subject descriptors, headings, or synonyms.

Information Search Planner

Literature Request form template.


This information search planner will prompt you to identify particular search concepts and strategies, and systematically record the information sources and material types which are relevant to your research

1. Summarise your topic (be as descriptive as possible – the words listed here can be used when searching databases and other resources) 


Clinical Scenario:



Formulate clinical question in the PICO format

Population: Male ☐Female ☐Both ☐  Infant☐ Child ☐Adolescent☐ Young Adult☐  Adult☐ Aged ☐Aged, 80 and Over☐ About Condition:


Comparison: No intervention ☐Placebo studies ☐Other intervention:  


Formulate clinical question in the ECLIPSE format (Evaluating services Health Management & Policy) 


Client Group






Do you wish to restrict your search to: reviews ☐meta-analyses ☐ clinical research ☐randomised control trials ☐ guidelines ☐



2. Apply the concepts as described below to assist filling our your search planner. 


Boolean operators: are a means of combining search terms to broaden or narrow search results

                AND -     narrows a search                                                 teenage* and ‘‘drug abuse’’

                OR -        broadens a search                                               teenage* or adolescen* or youth* or "young adult’’

                NOT-       used to exclude terms from a search              aids not ‘‘hearing aids’’

Phrase searching: This requires terms to be searched in the exact order specified within the quotation marks ‘‘ ‘‘

                “global warming” “prescription drugs”

Brackets are used to (group terms together) so they are searched first. Search: (animal OR mammal) AND habitat

Result: information on animals or mammals and habitat.

Truncation: Find word variations or alternate spellings by adding a truncation symbol to the end of terms. Common symbols are * or ! or ?

                adolescen* will find:  adolescent, adolescents, adolescence,

Identifying key concepts:

Synonyms (related terms):                Words or phrases that have a similar meaning              e.g. youth, teenager, adolescent

Plurals:                                                   More than one                                                                     e.g. child, children

Variant spellings                                  Consider American and English terms and spelling       e.g. Organisation organization

Acronyms, Abbreviations                   May need to be written out in full                                    e.g. WHO – World Health Organisation

Broader terms                                     General terms                                                                      e.g. computer networks

Narrower terms                                  Specific terms                                                                       e.g. Internet 

Medical Subject Headings                  Indexed heading 


Example using our search template. For the question: Do intake clinicians at South West Healthcare comply with standards of best practice in suicide risk assessment during intake/admission assessment? 


MeSH Terms




Adult; Aged; Aged, 80 and over; Adolescents


Elderly, Senior, youth, teenage*, teens





Practice guideline; guideline; practice guidelines as topic;


Risk Factors; Risk Assessment;

Diagnostic Tests, Routine

Clinical practice guideline; Training; Benefit-Risk Assessment; Risk; Admission Tests, Hospital; Preadmission Physical Examination; screening tools;

Best practice guideline; policy; procedures; care pathway; patient care plan; Australia


Assessment tool

suicide risk assessment tools

C (Medical condition)


Mental Health

Mental hygiene




3. Keep a systematic log of recorded database searches. 

Refine your results

You can now refine your results by adding limiters. Applying limiters to your search will allow you to focus your results to the most pertinent and relevant content. Example: Published date.

Further considerations

Any terms to exclude ?

Any limitations (eg timeframe, geographic region, demographics)?

Information sources brainstorming

  • Information is available from a wide range of sources, including print, electronic and multimedia
  • You may need to consult many different sources to satisfy all research needs
  • Stay on top of information by setting up alerts for those sources identified as key to your research

Key scholarly formats (peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, reports, books, systematic reviews etc…)

Key unpublished formats (working papers, government reports, pamphlets, posters, conference posters, blogs etc…) 

Grey Literature

Key Journals on my topic:

Key conferences in my research field:

Key authors and/or collaborative teams: (e.g. search Scopus and ISI Web of Science databases - citation counts)

Key organizations and web sites:


Result:  numbers of hits

  • Are they relevant?
  • Full text found? If not ... follow through with Full Text Finder, InterLibrary Loan, Google Scholar?
  • Will you export/save the citation to Refworks/Endnote?

Example Search:

Search Strategies (use Boolean Operation, e.g. AND, OR, NOT)


No. of Result

Example: (Oceanic ancestry group OR Aborigines, Australian OR Australian Race) AND (Health promotion OR health campaigns OR Promotion of health)

AND (School health promotion OR School health Services)

Subject Limiter: Health Promotion Location Limiter: Australia

EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS): MEDLINE complete, CINAHL, Clinical Key, Pro-Quest Nursing, Ovid Nursing


Review the literature

Once you have added limiters to your search and run the results, choose and review articles that are most relevant to your question. You may need to run the search across multiple databases.

Should you find an article that is particularly relevant to your search but not available to you in full text, check with your library to see if they can locate the full text of the article for you. 

Determine the level of evidence

As you review the journal articles, select those that have the highest level of evidence, such as a meta-analysis or a systematic review. 

Hierarchy of Evidence

Studies defined:

Meta-Analysis: A systematic review that uses quantitative methods to synthesise and summarise results. 

Systematic Review: A summary of the medical literature that uses explicit methods to perform a comprehensive literature search and critical appraisal of individual studies. 

Randomised Controlled Trial: Participants are randomly allocated into experimental or control groups and are followed over time for the variable/ outcomes of interest.

Cohort Study: Identifies participants who currently have a certain condition or receive a treatment and are followed over time and compared with another group of people not affected by the condition.

Case Control Study: Identifies participants who have a certain outcome (cases) and participants without that outcome (controls). 

Case Report/ Case Series: A report on one or more participants with a particular outcome. 

Adapted from: Jensen, K. 2017. Evidence-based practice: 7 steps to the perfect PICO search, EBSCO.

Critical Appraisal Tools 

 Joanna Briggs Institute has developed check lists for all of these types of studies, this can be found here.

Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) has a set of eight critical appraisal tools are designed to be used when reading research, these include tools for Systematic Reviews, Randomised Controlled Trials, Cohort Studies, Case Control Studies, Economic Evaluations, Diagnostic Studies, Qualitative studies and Clinical Prediction Rule. These are free to download either a version to print and handfill, or a version to fill in electronically.

Search Filter

Why not use the PHC Search Filter to find more articles of interest?
The PHC Search Filter, developed by Primary Health Care Research and Information Service and Flinders University, is an efficient search strategy giving you easy access to the primary health care literature you need. It combines textwords and subject headings (eg MeSH) and has a validated and known level of performance. Follow one of the One-Click topic search links, or Build-Your-Own search to search your topic within PubMed.

Requesting Literature

Cannot find the article you need request it using our Document Delivery Service.


You can preform your literature search on our Discovery Service. 


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