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Literature Searching: Guided Literature Search

Learn more about how to use library resources to search for clinical information.

Guided Literature Search

This guide is meant to take you through the process of developing an advanced, robust literature search. For feedback on your searches, submit the completed Guided Literature Search Form. A librarian will review the form and send feedback within 3-5 business days.

The Process

The first step to a literature search is defining your research question. The question should be clearly stated, answerable, and focused. If you are working on an in-depth project, you may need to conduct a few different literature searches to find literature to answer your many questions.

One method for evaluating your research question is to use the FINER criteria. Learn more about FINER in the Cummings et al reading below.

F: Feasible (adequate number of subjects, manageable, enough time and money)
I: Interesting (answer is interesting to investigator and their peers)
N: Novel (How will your findings relate to previous ones?)
E: Ethical (Is your study ethical?)
R: Relevant (relevant to the community and to future research)


Clinical question:
A literature search on “gastric bypass” can produce a lot of search results.
A narrower search might be: Is gastric bypass surgery as effective as sleeve gastrectomy for long term weight control?


Non-clinical question:
A literature search on “diversity in medical education” can produce an overwhelming number of search results.
A narrower search might be: Do pipeline programs help to create diversity in medical education?





1. Share your literature search question. 

Prepare to search the bibliographic databases by breaking your research question down into key components. The components are parts of your research question that should be present in any relevant article.   

With clinical questions, PICO can help you to identify the key components. PICO is an acronym that stands for:

P: Patient, population, problem
I: Intervention, exposure
C: Comparison
O: Outcome

In non-clinical questions, identify essential elements in your question.


Clinical question: Is gastric bypass surgery as effective as sleeve gastrectomy for long term weight control in patients with obesity?
P: Obesity
I: Gastric bypass
C: Gastric sleeve
O: Weight control


Non-clinical question: Do pipeline programs help to create diversity in medical education.
Pipeline programs
Medical education




Now that you have the elements identified, come up related keywords or synonyms that represent each topic. Not all authors use the same terminology, so try to think of different words that an author might use. Note that this is an iterative process. As you find relevant articles, you will discover additional keywords.

A chart can be useful to keep track of the keywords. As you find more keywords, add them to the chart. Note the “OR” between the keywords. OR is a Boolean operator and databases use Boolean operators to connect topics. 


Some ways to identify synonyms or related keywords:

  • If your topic is something you don't know enough about yet, it can be hard to think of synonyms or examples.  Find some background information before starting your searching. (UpToDate, Wikipedia, Google Scholar are great general resources)
  • Articles often include keywords under the abstract, look at those if you’ve already found a relevant article for your search
  • Search the MeSH Database to find a relevant subject headings.
  • Sometimes a specific intervention will be what the articles are using to describe their work (Example: “aroma therapy” instead of “non-pharmacological pain intervention”)
  • Check a thesaurus for words you might be forgetting (
  • Don’t forget about British or alternate spellings!


Clinical question: Is gastric bypass surgery as effective as sleeve gastrectomy for long term weight control in patients with obesity?
Obesity OR obese OR over weight
Gastric bypass OR Gastrojejunostomy
Gastric sleeve OR partial gastrectomy OR gastrectomies
Weight control OR weight loss


Non-clinical question: Do pipeline programs help to create diversity in medical education.
Pipeline programs
Medical education OR medical students OR medical school





2. Share your final table or list of keywords and search terms. 

With all the preparations in place, we are ready to search the databases. The library subscribes to and maintains links in over 70 databases, and each has its own scope and focus, and strengths and limitations. If you are searching for information related to medicine, medical education, healthcare, or biomedical sciences, PubMed is a good first choice. However, we recommend covering your bases by searching more than one source.


Where to search for information


3. Share which databases you searched.

Advanced searching in PubMed

Use the Advanced Search area to create your search in PubMed. Find a link to Advanced Search under the search box. 

Advanced Search

Enter your search terms for each topic, one line at a time and combine the lines with "And." PubMed will add parentheses around each cluster of terms. 

Advanced Search


Advanced searching in other databases

In databases like Web of Science, CINAHL and Scopus, your search lines can be entered line-by-line into the search boxes on the main page. 

Web of Science
Example from Web of Science



  • As you AND together more topics, your search results will get smaller.

  • As you OR together more synonyms, your search results will get bigger. 

  • If you are using the PICO model, you may not want to include all the topics in your search. It may be helpful to omit the comparison or outcome topics. 

  • Your initial search shouldn't be your final search. Play around with different combinations of words and topics to see what happens to your results. 

  • Look for the Get It from MCW Libraries buttons to connect to the full text of articles. These can be found in most of our databases. 
    Get it from MCW Libraries


Results sorting

  • PubMed's default sort is most relevant but it can be changed to most recent by changing the display options.


  • Most databases offer filters on the left-side of the results page that can be used to limit to fields such as publication types, language, and year of publication.

  • PubMed also has additional filters for age, sex, subject, etc. 




4. What terms did you use in your search?

5. Share one or two relevant articles. If you can't find a complete citation, send the article title, journal name and authors.

6. Share any comments about the problems or challenges you encountered

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