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Searching the Literature: A Guide to Comprehensive Searching in the Health Sciences

Students and researchers in the health sciences are often required to conduct comprehensive searches of the literature. Follow the steps in this guide to learn how this process works.

Why Document Your Search?

Lots of reasons to document your search: 

  • Double-check your search
  • Make changes to it
  • Run your search to scan for new publications
  • Report your search in a publication
  • Ensure that your search is reproducible and easy to understand!

For these reasons, record information about your search as you conduct it.

Documenting Your Methodology

Things to Keep Track of: 

Keep a list as you go with this information (using a spreadsheet, an online or paper checklist, or a Word document):

  • Databases searched, and provider used (ex. OVID vs. ProQuest for PsycINFO)
  • Date you performed the search 
  • Search strategy, including subject headings and textwords used
  • Filters or limits used
  • Search history (show combinations of terms)
  • Number of results, both pre-screening and post-screening 
  • Total number of duplicates

The Cochrane Handbook section 6.6 offers further guidelines for documenting your methodology.

Example Search Methods: 

We searched Ovid MEDLINE: Epub Ahead of Print, In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, Ovid MEDLINE® Daily and Ovid MEDLINE® 1946-Present and Ebsco CINAHL Plus with Full Text 1937-present for peer-reviewed articles on the use of pet therapy in nursing homes. Search strategies were composed of each database's command language, controlled vocabulary, and appropriate search fields. MeSH terms, CINAHL headings, and textwords were used for the concepts of pet therapy and nursing homes. The concepts were combined with a Boolean 'AND'. No filters or limits were applied. Final searches were completed in January 2017. Please see Appendix or Supplementary Material for full strategies [then provide a copy of your final search history from the database - see below video for instructions]. 

Tutorial: Preparing your Ovid Medline Search Strategy for Feedback

Saving Your Searches

Most major databases allow you to save your searches. This avoids retyping many lines of text when you want to reuse the same strategy.

To save your searches, you will usually need to create a free account with each database.

MEDLINE save searches option.

Alerts

To continue to use the same search over time, or to stay on top of the field, you can receive email alerts every time a new article that fits your search is added to a database.

As with saving your searches, setting up an alert is usually done by making a free account.

CINAHL alerts tab.