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Gold digging: perfecting your literature search

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When you’re producing academic work, you’ll gain the most marks by demonstrating you’ve done a thorough search for evidence, so here’s how to do it

A literature search is a detailed rummage around for information about a certain topic. It’s useful to do a literature search when you’re writing an essay or when you need to find a bit more out about something specific. 

When you’re trying to show off your academic flair and win marks, it’s important to read widely. Roger Watson, professor of nursing at Sheffield University, says: “You have to be careful not to only look at one point of view - even in well established clinical areas there are always controversies and alternative ways of thinking. Evidence of wide reading and trying to come to a conclusion on the basis of different types of published evidence is the essence of writing critically.”

Where should I look?

You can search for information in print or online.

  • Books: This is a good place to start looking for information that is general and doesn’t need to be completely up to date. Even so, it’s a good idea to check the publication date of the book if you’re looking for clinical or drug related information. You should find a good selection of relevant books at your academic library. Ask a librarian if you need help, that’s what they’re there for.
  • Journals: Journals probably beat books on their level of detail, forward thinking and ability to be very up to date. It’s best to use journals that are peer-reviewed. This means the research has passed through a thorough critiquing process. Some good databases where you can search for journal articles are and
  • Government websites: These often host a lot of clinical guidance, surveys and statistics. Top sites include the Department of Health, Health Protection Agency, Office for National Statistics, NHS Evidence, and NICE.
  • Google Scholar: While Google indexes all the websites in the world, Google Scholar only covers academic sites and institutional databases. Not all link to a full text article, but you can change the settings to show you when the free text is available without subscription. And be sure to try the advanced search on Google Scholar, where you can narrow down your search by date, author and subject.

How do I search online?

When searching online, whether within a specific journal or on a database, there are a number of techniques that can help you hone in on what you’re looking for.

  • Keywords: These are words you can enter into a search box that define the core of what you’re looking for. For example, say you’re writing an essay about preventing the spread of norovirus. You could search for ‘norovirus’, ‘gastroenteritis’ and ‘infection control’.
  • Think about all the possible words that can be used to describe the same subject area, as different sources might use different words e.g. ‘cancer’ and ‘neoplasm’.
  • Think about alternative spellings too. Some words are spelled differently in US and UK English e.g. ‘paediatric’ and ‘pediatric’, so search for both.
  • Joining words: Using ‘and’ in the search box e.g. ‘prevention AND control’ will narrow your search, as the search tool will have to bring up information where both words are present. Using ‘or’ widens your search as the tool can pick up information that matches either word e.g. searching for ‘prevention OR control’.
  • Phrases: This is a good technique to use when you’re searching for an exact phrase or sentence. You can use speech marks or brackets to connect the words together e.g. “aseptic non-touch technique”
  • Limitations: Many online search facilities allow you to filter down your search by adding in more information, this can help to focus your search. E.g. limiting your search to a specific publication, age-group or date.

How do I remember?

If you’re pulling out information from your sources as you go along, you’ll need to keep a record of where it came from so you can reference it later. It’s also a good idea to record the terms you searched for so you don’t repeat your work at a later date.

How do I keep up to date?

When you’re researching an area over a long period of time, one way of keeping in the know is to register for ‘e-alerts’. These are newsletters including information on a topic of your choosing. Many journals and government websites offer this facility. For example, the NHS Evidence site, which gathers information from a range of sources, allows you to do just this. Simply perform a search, choose ‘save this search’ from the actions menu, and then select the alerts option in ‘my evidence’ after you’ve registered on the site. You could also choose to set up an RSS feed. You’ll find tips on searching NHS Evidence and RSS feeds here.

It’s also good to keep up to date with research in your everyday life, even when you’re not working on an essay or academic project. Roger Watson says: “I think nursing students cannot be up to date across the whole of research, but they are the future of nursing and will soon be in practice so they have a responsibility to bear in that regard and keep up to date.”

What kind of journal articles are there?

  • Research: include systematic reviews - these are the best source of evidence
  • Review: give a summary of a more than one research article talking about the same topic
  • Case studies: focus on one person or situation, as opposed to a group of studies
  • Commentaries and opinion: include interpretations of research or letters to the editor and editorials


  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Adam Roxby

    I'm sure every student has been warned against using references such as wikipedia and journalists so to have an article like this which helps students find references and information more efficiently is a great benefit.

    I have found myself using services like google books which gives you information, previews and often complete books on a wide range of subjects. You can either use these books as part of your reference or find out more about books that you might want to go out and get from the store or the library.

    If you have any more suggestions on how to get the most out of the literature that is available then just let us know using the comment section below.

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