Skip to main content

Literature searching explained

Define your search question

You should form a search question before you begin. Reframing your research project into a defined and searchable question will make your literature search more specific and your results more relevant.

Decide the topic of your search

You should start by deciding the topic of your search. This means identifying the broad topic, refining it to establish which particular aspect of the topic interests you, and reframing that topic as a question.

For example:

  • Broad topic: eating disorders and cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Main focus topic: self esteem
  • Topic stated as a question: "In patients with eating disorders, how effective is cognitive behavioural therapy in improving self-esteem?"

Identify the main concepts in your question

Once you have a searchable question, highlight the major concepts. For example: “In patients with eating disorders, how effective is cognitive behavioural therapy in improving self-esteem?”

You should then find keywords and phrases to express the different concepts. For example, the concept “eating disorders” covers a wide range of key terms, including Anorexia and Bulimia.

It may be useful to create a concept map. First identify the major concepts within your question and then organise your appropriate key terms.

Download a blank concept map model (DOCX) for your own use.

If you are researching a medicine or health related topic then you might want to use a PICO search model. PICO helps you identify the Patient, Intervention, Comparison and Outcome concepts within your research question.

  • Patient: Who is the treatment being delivered to? What is happening to the patient?
  • Intervention: What treatment is being delivered? What is happening to the patient?
  • Comparison: How much better is the procedure than another? What are the alternatives?
  • Outcome: How is the effect measured? What can be achieved?

List synonyms for each concept. You may wish to include variant spellings or endings (plural, singular terms). Exclude parts of the PICO that do not relate to your search question. For example, you may not be drawing any comparisons in your research.

View a filled-in PICO model (PDF) for our example research question.