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Literature Search Process: An Overview

1. Define your topic

At the start of the research process the topic is often broad and requires refinement. The next step, looking for background information, will help gather information to prepare a specific question.

2. Look for background information

Background information provides foundation knowledge on a topic, and is found mostly in various books, texts and/or review articles. These materials are generally collaborative efforts, written by experts in the field, and can usually be assumed to reflect peer consensus on the topic.

As well, background information will:

  • help prepare you for the information you will find in the journal literature.
  • help generate a list of keywords to plan your journal literature search.
  • provide bibliographies of relevant materials.

Resources @ Queen’s for background information:

  • Omni: Find articles, books and e-books, journals, media and much more in a single search. Omni has replaced Summon and QCAT. For search tips see this guide
  • Specific online book collections: AccessMedicine and Thieme search platforms used to access full text health care reference books. There are more e-book collections and they can be found by filtering for ebooks in the Database Search. Note – your can select a specific subject to focus your search.
  • Health and Life Sciences Databases: Review articles from Medline, EMBASE, PubMed or other citation databases.

Internet Resources:

Google Scholar: A web search engine that broadly scans the scholarly literature. If you access Google Scholar via the Queen’s University Library link, the search results are connected to the Library’s journal holdings.

3. Formulate your specific question

State your information need as an answerable question. A clinical question should incorporate at least three elements and it is often referred to by the acronym – PICO.

  1. Patient – describe the patient as a member of a population group in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, etc. or in terms of their disease or general health condition.
  2. Intervention – e.g. patient education, diagnostic tests, treatment, self-care etc.
  3. Comparison Intervention (if necessary) – e.g. What is the main alternative to compare with the intervention? For example, deciding between two drugs.
  4. Expected Outcome – keep in mind what is the anticipated effect of the intervention on the patient.

Sample clinical question:

In older patients with peptic ulcer, is a sequential 10-day therapy regimen better than standard 7-day triple therapy for eradicating Helicobacter pylori?

Patient Description


Comparison Intervention

Expected Outcome

Older patients with peptic ulcer

Sequential 10-day therapy regimen

Standard 7-day triple therapy

Eradicating Helicobacter pylori

Defining your topic with a specific question will make it easier to formulate the search strategy, and enable you to evaluate the results of your search quickly.

Note: Not all questions are of a clinical nature, the term “intervention” is taken very broadly.

4. Look for specific information

Specific information is most often found in journal articles or other primary sources. These primary sources are most efficiently accessed through resources such as journal indexes, databases, and bibliographies. Use the PICO component to design your search strategy.

Specific information will:

  • Provide detailed information on your topic to further your knowledge found in books and review articles.
  • May provide you with further references.

Resources @ Queen’s for Specific Information:

Health and Life Sciences Databases for specific studies (non review articles): Medline, PubMed, EMBASE, etc.

Internet Resources:

Can be helpful, especially if it is important to locate materials other than journal articles (reports, position papers, statistics, etc.). It is important to:

  • Learn how to EVALUATE web sites and
  • Learn how to cite information found on the Internet

5. Evaluate your findings

Do they fulfil your information need(s)? Is your question answered?

  • Modify your search strategy if necessary.
  • Look for resources to fill in gaps or clarify other materials.
  • Is the information recent?
  • Is the information from a reliable source?