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Literature Searching

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


This guide focusses on the basic principles for performing a literature search using one of the main health databases such as MedlineEmbase or Cinahl.

At St. George's, 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 and for BNI, the platform used is by ProQuest. NHS staff access to databases via these platforms too but they require an OpenAthens account). This type of search can be broken down into the following stages:

Plan - Build - Review - Manage

Each stage is covered separately in more detail in the relevant tabs above.

Planning a search

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

Building a search strategy

  • 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 such as publication date

Review the search

  • Check the titles and abstracts of your search results and review their relevancy
  • Amend your search terms and re-run your search if necessary

Manage a search

  • Print, email or export your search results
  • 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