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Principles of Effective Literature Searching

A step-by-step guide to the literature search process


This guide focusses on the basic principles for performing a literature search using one of the main health databases such as  Search logoMedlineEmbase or Cinahl. At SGUL each of these databases can be searched using a specialist search tool. For example, for Medline and Embase, these databases are searched using the Ovid search tool, and for Cinahl it is the EBSCOhost search tool. NHS staff have a bespoke search tool Healthcare databases advanced search (HDAS requires an OpenAthens account).

This type of search can be broken down into the following stages listed below.  Each stage is covered separately in more detail in the relevant page above.

Search route map





Planning a search

  • Define your research topic or research question
  • Identify important concepts for your topic / question
  • Define any limiting factors eg publication date, age group, English language
  • Decide where to search eg which health databases cover your topic?

Building a search strategy using a specialist search tool

  • Use a controlled vocabulary to find index terms to use in your search
  • Use ‘free text’ searches to broaden the search or where index terms are not available
  • Combine the searches using the operators AND, OR and NOT
  • Apply limits eg publication date

Managing the search results

  • Print, email or export your search results

Saving a search

  • Save as a permanent search so that it can be retrieved and run at a later date, or edited
  • Save as an Alert which can run at regular intervals to identify any new articles


Search Hunter

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