St George's University of London Logo

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 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:

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