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Literature Reviews & Search Strategies

Overview of Search Strategies

There are many ways to find literature for your review, and we recommend that you use a combination of strategies - keeping in mind that you're going to be searching multiple times in a variety of ways, using different databases and resources. Searching the literature is not a straightforward, linear process - it's iterative (translation: you'll search multiple times, modifying your strategies as you go, and sometimes it'll be frustrating). 

Search Strategies

Some form of a keyword search is the way most of us get at scholarly articles in database - it's a great approach! Make sure you're familiar with these librarian strategies to get the most out of your searches.

Figuring out the best keywords for your research topic/question is a process - you'll start with one or a few words and then shift, adapt, and expand them as you start finding source that describe the topic using other words. Your search terms are the bridge between known topics and the unknowns of your research question - so sometimes one specific word will be enough, sometimes you'll need several different words to describe a concept AND you'll need to connect that concept to a second (and/or third) concept.

The number and specificity of your search terms depend on your topic and the scope of your literature review.

Connect Keywords Using Boolean

Boolean Connector Purpose


Connects different concepts (keywords).

Narrows down the number of results.


Connects synonyms.

Expands the number of results.


Excludes a concept.

Use with extreme caution (even librarians don't use this one much).


Make the Database Work More


...uses the asterisk (*) to end a word at its core, allowing you to retrieve many more documents containing variations of the search term.  Example: educat* will find educate, educates, education, educators, educating and more.


Phrase Searching when you put quotations marks around two or more words, so that the database looks for those words in that exact order. Examples: "higher education," "public health" and "pharmaceutical industry."


Controlled Vocabulary

... is when you use the terms the database uses to describe what each article is about as search terms. Searching using controlled vocabularies is a great way to get at everything on a topic in a database.  


Databases and search engines are probably going to bring back a lot of results - more than a human can realistically go through. Instead of trying to manually read and sort them all, use the filters in each database to remove the stuff you wouldn't use anyway (ie it's outside the scope of your project).

To make sure you're consistent between searches and databases, write down the filters you're using.

A Few Filters to Try

Filter How it's Useful
Location/Collection This a filter you'll see in MCPHS Smart Search and the Catalog, and it's way narrow your results to things immediately available through the MCPHS collections, or (when removed) means you'll also see previews of results that we'll get for you through Interlibrary Loan. If you're doing graduate-level or more advanced work, you'll want to removed any location limiters, because relevance to your topic is more important.
Date range You may want to limit the search results you're seeing based on when they were published. For example, evidence-based medicine often involves looking at research from the last five years, while a project taking a historical perspective will want to include work going further back in time.
Language The Library collects resources in English, but various databases index (include the abstract) of articles in a variety of languages. Consider limiting your search results to just those published in languages that you can read research in. (Note: your professor/advisor may have additional language restrictions, so if you're including research in multiple languages make sure that works for them too.)
Source Type Literature reviews usually rely rather narrowly on various scholarly or academic sources, rather than the full spectrum of sources available to you in the world. Consider limiting your results to Academic or Scholarly articles.
Article Type Sometimes you just need a systematic review, empirical study, or some other form of research. Subject specific databases will almost always offer a way to narrow down your results by methodology (article type). When the filter isn't available you can add your method of choice as an additional keyword!
More... These are just a start! When you get to a new database, pause and take a look around. Figure out how the database can do some of the work for you - you can always turn off a filter if you don't like what it does.


Once you know you have a good article, there are a lot of useful parts to it - far beyond the content.

Not sure where to start? Try course readings and other required materials.

Useful Parts of a Good Article

Useful Part Explanation
Keywords Look at the author-generated keywords, the database subject headings, the title, abstract and introduction for words that may be great additional/alternative search terms. You don't have to know everything about a topic before you start searching - let what you find introduce you to the language of the field.
Author(s) If they're written one article on this topic, they may have written more. Click on the author names to see what else they have in the database, or use their names (individually) as a search term elsewhere.
Journal They may have published other articles on your topic; sometimes there's even a special issue wholly focused on a single topic. Consider browsing or searching within a specific publication. Oftentimes you'll end up searching in the journal's website.
Instruments If authors have already created and validated an instrument (survey, tests, and measures), consider if you can use/adapt it for your own work. Look for details in the methods section, an original citation in the reference, and/or a copy in the appendix.
References Experts on this topic have gathered and evaluated these sources, make sure you look through them for potential sources for your own work.


Ways to Use Citations

Citing By using the references from the end of an article you'll move backwards and laterally in time to connected literature in the field. This is a great way to find other relevant articles as well as foundational research in the field.
Cited by By using a citation searching database (eg Scopus or Google Scholar) you can more forward and laterally in time to connect to newer literature in the field. This is a great way to find more relevant articles in a fields as well as get as sense of how significant the article you're starting from is to the field as a whole.

Older sources eat into the found article as references, and the found article is cited by more recent publications.

Your search results don't have to be frozen in the moment you search! There are a few things you can set up to keep your search going automatically.

Alerts What it Does for You Example
Journal Table of Contents  Receive an email each time a new issue is published. This is a great way to read the most current research being published in leading journals in your field. Or consider following journals on social media, via an RSS feed, or app like If This Then That - these tools are great ways to stay up on the new research out there.      Set up an account with the American Journal of Public Health to receive eAlerts.  
Saved & Scheduled Database Searches You can create a personal account in most databases so that once you've fine-tuned your search terms and filters on a topic, you can easily rerun the search manually (going back to the database), or set it so the database automatically runs the search on a schedule and emails you any results. Make those tools work for you!  In PubMed, set up MyNCBI to start saving your searching and creating alerts.
Google Scholar Similar to the database alerts, you can tell Google Scholar to email you whenever certain words or phrases (including authors, institutions, methods, keywords, etc.) appear in new search results.  In settings, choose alerts and then enter the word/phrase you want them to email you about. 

Subject Searching

Searching using subject headings is a comprehensive search strategy that requires some planning and topic knowledge. Work through this PubMed tutorial for an introduction to this important approach to searching.

tutorial on PubMed Subject Search: How it Works

Example: Iteratively Developing + Using Keywords

Through these videos and the accompanying PDF, you'll see an example of starting with a potential research question and developing search terms through brainstorming and keyword searching.

Demonstration: Developing Keywords from a Question

Demonstration: An Advanced Search

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