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Health and Social Care

How to do a Literature Search

In this video, we'll cover how to develop a search strategy, make your searches more effective and efficient, and think about where to search.


Successful research depends on a properly constructed research question on a topic that is relevant for study.
Read this 4 page guide to find out how to:
1) Choose the subject of your research
2) Decide on a relevant research question
3) Generate applicable search terms and keywords


Literature Search Step-By-Step

This guide will explain the process of undertaking a literature search and the key concepts you will need to understand to carry out a successful review of the published literature.

Before you start searching for information on a topic, it is best to plan your search strategy.

Consider using a search concept tool, find out more in Step 2 - 'PICO and other search frameworks'



Search concept tools can help you:

  • Structure your aim into a research question

  • Form your question and identify the key concepts

  • Break down your topic, and develop your search

Different search concepts fit better with different areas of study. This video will introduce you to PICO and ECLIPSE.

Whether you are writing a thesis, dissertation, or research paper it is a key task to survey prior literature and research findings. More likely than not, you will be looking for trusted resources, most likely peer-reviewed research articles. Academic research databases make it easy to locate the literature you are looking for.

To discover the databases most relevant to you, go to the 'databases' menu in this guide. 

For guidance in how to search specific databases see 'help with searching databases'

What is phrase searching?

Wherever you have a keyword/ concept that is more than one word long (i.e. a phrase), you can use quotation marks to keep the phrase together in your search. 

Without quotation marks, you will find search results containing your words, but they won't necessarily appear together. 

So, for example, if you were searching for hand washing, without quotation marks, you may well find other, unrelated subjects in your results.

Phrase searching using "hand washing" will therefore reduce the number of results you get but it will also, more importantly, make the results you do get much more relevant to your topic. 

What are Boolean operators?

Boolean operators are words you can use in your search to combine or exclude keywords from your results.

The three main Boolean operators are: AND, OR, NOT.

Why use Boolean operators?

Boolean operators will make make your search more focused, and give you more relevant results. You can use them to either expand or limit your search, as described below. 

AND narrows your search.

Combine your keywords with AND to make sure that they all appear in your search results. Venn diagram A AND B

For example, searching for 'covid-19 AND telehealth' will make sure your results contain both of these words. The more keywords you add with AND, the narrower your search will be, and the fewer results you will get. For example we could add to this search to look for 'covid-19 AND telehealth AND elderly'.

OR broadens your search.

Use OR between your keywords to include any or all of them appear in your results. Venn diagram A OR B

You can search for alternatives and synonyms at the same time by using OR. This will broaden your search and give you a larger number of results. It will also save you time, as you won't have to run separate searches with your synonyms, you can search for them all at once. 

For example, you could search for 'telehealth OR telemedicine' to find related results, regardless of how it has been described by the author. You could also use it to search for acronyms, such as 'personal protective equipment OR PPE' or for alternative spellings such as 'paediatric OR pediatric '. 

NOT narrows your search. 

NOT is used to exclude keyword(s) from your search. Venn diagram A NOT B.

If you are getting lots of irrelevant results, and there is a certain keyword you do not want to see in your results, you can try excluding it with NOT. However, proceed with caution, as you don't want to miss out on any useful results!

For example, you could search for 'hand washing NOT PPE' if you were interested in primarily exploring the extent to which hand hygiene reduces COVID-19 transmission and not personal protective equipment.

What is truncation?

Most databases allow truncation, which uses a symbol to replace word endings. This will save you time and expand your search to include plurals and related words. 

To use truncation, just shorten the word to its root and add the relevant truncation symbol. 

Truncation examples

A search for therap* will find therap, therapist, therapies, therapeutically etc.

Child* will find child, children, childhood etc. 

social work* will find social work, social worker, social workers, social working etc. 

Avoid truncation overload!

Trying to truncate a word too early can retrieve many unrelated and unwanted results:

A search for comp* will find computer, computers, computable, comparable, comparison, compromise and more!

What is a wildcard?

Wildcards work in a similar way to truncation but within a word. They can be used to substitute for a letter, letters or no letter within a word. 

They are useful where you have, for example, British and American English spelling variants or irregular plurals. 

They will broaden your search by including variants within one search. 

The most common symbol used is a question mark (for one/ no letter substitution). However, this is not the case in all databases. Check the help or search tips guide of the database you are searching in to find out which one to use. Other symbols which are sometimes used include: !,*, or #. These other symbols can sometimes be used in different ways, for example to represent more than one letter within a word. 

Wildcard search examples

A search for gr?y will find grey or gray

wom?n will find woman or women

col?r will find color or colour 

Too many results: what can you do about it?

If you're getting an unmanageable amount of results, or the results you're getting aren't relevant to your topic, there are a few techniques you can try. 

Phrase searching - see section 4. 

Add keywords with AND - see section 5. 

Exclude keywords with NOT - see section 5. 


Field searching

In most databases the advanced search allows you to search for your keywords within a specific field, such as title, author or abstract. 

If you're finding too many results, try restricting one or more of your keywords so they have to appear in, for example, the title of any results. 

Restrict your results using advanced search

There are usually other ways to filter or restrict your results in the advanced search options. For example you could restrict your results to a specific date range (e.g. last 5 or 10 years), document type (journal articles) or language. Consider your inclusion and exclusion criteria. Depending on the database there may be other options available. 

Trial and error

Try one or a combination of the techniques above and see what happens to your results. You may find that if you restrict your search too far, you won't find enough results, but you can then remove some restrictions to expand the search again. Searching is often a process of trial and error, just remember to keep a record of what you've tried and don't give up!

Too few results: what can you do about it?

Sometimes, you'll just not get any results at all when you search! Or, you may get very few, and not enough to use in your work.

If you're not getting many results for your topic, there are a few techniques you can try. 


Add alternative keywords with OR - see section 5.

Field searching

In most databases the advanced search allows you to search for your keywords within a specific field, such as title, author or abstract. 

If you're not finding enough results, check that you aren't restricting your search too much. Start by search all fields or full text, and you could then narrow down from there if you need to. 

Proximity searching

Proximity searching allows you to look for terms that may appear near each other in your results. This can be useful when you are looking for keywords that can be expressed in different ways. 

Usually, proximity operators will be a combination of a letter (N or W) or word (NEAR) and a number specifying the distance (number of words) between your search terms. 

For example, a search for 'election N5 reform' will find results that have up to 5 words between the two terms, so for example election reform and election procedure reform or reform of election law. 

Trial and error

Try one or a combination of the techniques above and see what happens to your results. You may find that if you expand your search too far, you will find too many results, but you can then limit the search again. Searching is often a process of trial and error, just remember to keep a record of what you've tried and don't give up! If you still can't find the results you need, get in touch with us for more help. 

One problem may simply be that you're searching in the wrong place! Try another database (ideally one recommended in your Subject Guide for best results). Remember, you need to be looking in the right kind of database for the types of resource you want.

Saving searches within databases
Many databases will allow you to save your search history. This will usually keep track of when you searched, what for and how many results you got. 

You can also use these saved searches to set up alerts so you will be notified if anything new is added to the database which would match your search criteria. This is a good way of keeping up to date with a topic. 

Citation searching uses one relevant publication to locate others, by exploring the list of references at the end of the publication in the bibliography (going back in time and reading what the authors read to inform the article), and by exploring other publications that cite your reference (going forward in time and reading subsequent publications that listed your reference in their bibliography). 

This type of search is often done in addition to standard database searching, to increase the recall of all the relevant literature. However, this method should not be used in isolation when searching for evidence as large amounts of information could be missed.

Tutorial showing how to conduct a cited reference search in Scopus

Try this example graph and then create your own. 

You will need to document your search strategy to show how you arrived at your results. You should demonstrate that you have been thorough, rigorous and systematic and that your search is repeatable.

Your search table might look something like this:

Date of search: 01/10/2022
Database searched: MEDLINE Ultimate

Search no. Search term Results
1 COVID-19 OR COVID19 OR Coronavirus OR “Novel coronavirus” 101,864
2 Telemed* OR Tele-medicine OR Telehealth OR Tele-health OR Telecare 55,465
3 "older adults" or elder* or seniors or geriatrics  426,815
4 S1 AND S2 AND S3 535
5 Limiters: Language (English), aged 65+ years 198


Checking the validity and value of papers
As well as checking that your results are relevant to your research topic, you will also need to ensure that they are valid and valuable e.g. unbiased, objective etc. This process is known as critical appraisal.

For information on critical appraisal tools and checklists see here.

How do I reference?

The complete guide to referencing in the correct style for Health and Social Care (Harvard - Cite Them Right) is available here

What is referencing?

Research and academic work is a conversation in which you build on the ideas and findings of others to create new, original thought. Referencing is an important part of this, as it is the way that you acknowledge all the information sources you've used to support your own work. Through referencing, you're telling your reader where you found your information and crediting whoever produced it.

Why should I reference?

There are lots of reasons why referencing is important. Referencing helps you to:

  • give credit to other researchers' work
  • avoid plagiarism by clearly showing when you've used another person's ideas
  • enable your readers to find the sources you've used
  • demonstrate how much research you've done 
  • strengthen your argument by providing supporting evidence


What is Reference Management Software?

Reference management software allows you to collect, store and organise your references, and insert them into your documents quickly and easily. Once you have stored a reference, you can use it over and over again in your bibliographies. This can save you a lot of time, as you don't have to manually type a reference each time you cite a particular source.




Scoping reviews

What is a scoping review?

A Scoping Review is one of many evidence synthesis methodologies. Similar to a Systematic Review, a Scoping Review requires a systematic search strategy and clear, structured reporting. Unlike a Systematic Review, a Scoping Review is exploratory in nature and answers a broad research question designed to assess the extent of the existing research.

According to Arksey & O'Malley, who wrote the seminal work on Scoping Reviews, this particular methodology serve 4 primary purposes:

  1. To map the extent of research conducted on a topic.
  2. To determine if a full systematic review is warranted.
  3. To summarize the existing research.
  4. To identify gaps in the research.

For an excellent overview of the scoping review process see here


JBI scoping review guidance

Scoping review methodology papers

Tools for scoping reviews


PRISMA is an evidence-based minimum set of items for reporting in systematic reviews and meta-analyses. PRISMA focuses on the reporting of reviews evaluating randomized trials, but can also be used as a basis for reporting systematic reviews of other types of research, particularly evaluations of interventions.

In PRISMA 2020, there are now expanded options depending on where you search and whether you are updating a review. Version 1 of PRISMA 2020 includes databases and clinical trial or preprint registers.  Version 2 includes additional sections for elaborating on your grey literature search, such as searches on websites or in citation lists.  Both versions are available for new and updated reviews from the Equator Network's PRISMA Flow Diagram page.

For a step-by-step guide to completing the PRISMA Flow Diagram see this helpful guide