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Literature Searching

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


This guide focuses 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, Medline and Embase are searched using the Ovid search tool. CINAHL is searched using the EBSCOhost search tool. For BNI, the platform used is ProQuest.

NHS staff can access databases via these platforms too using an OpenAthens account.

Searching for literature 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