Literature Searching

Steps for Searching the Literature

Searching is an iterative process and often requires re-evaluation and testing by adding or changing keywords and the ways they relate to each other. To guide your search development, you can follow the search steps below. For more information on each step, navigate to its matching tab on the right menu. 

1. Formulate a clear, well-defined, answerable search question

Generally, the basic literature search process begins with formulating a clear, well-defined research question. Asking the right research question is essential to creating an effective search. Your research question(s) must be well-defined and answerable. If the question is too broad, your search will yield more information than you can possibly look through.

2. Identify primary concepts and gather synonyms

Your research question will also help identify the primary search concepts. This will allow you to think about how you want the concepts to relate to each other. Since different authors use different terminology to refer to the same concept, you will need to gather synonyms and all the ways authors might express them. However, it is important to balance the terms so that the synonyms do not go beyond the scope of how you've defined them.

3. Locate subject headings (MeSH)

Subject databases like PubMed use 'controlled vocabularies' made up of subject headings that are preassigned to indexed articles that share a similar topic. These subject headings are organized hierarchically within a family tree of broader and narrower concepts. In PubMed and MEDLINE, the subject headings are called Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). By including MeSH terms in your search, you will not have to think about word variations, word endings, plural or singular forms, or synonyms. Some topics or concepts may even have more than one appropriate MeSH term. There are also times when a topic or concept may not have a MeSH term. 

4. Combine concepts using Boolean operators AND/OR

Once you have identified your search concepts, synonyms, and MeSH terms, you'll need to put them together using nesting and Boolean operators (e.g. AND, OR, NOT). Nesting uses parentheses to put search terms into groups. Boolean operators are used to combine similar and different concepts into one query. 

5. Refine search terms and search in PubMed

There are various database search tactics you can use, such as field tags to limit the search to certain fields, quotation marks for phrase searching, and proximity operators to search a number of spaces between terms to refine your search terms. The constructed search string is ready to be pasted into PubMed. 

6. Apply limits (optional)

If you're getting too many results, you can further refine your search results by using limits on the left box of the results page. Limits allow you to narrow your search by a number of facets such as year, journal name, article type, language, age, etc. 


Depending on the nature of the literature review, the complexity and comprehensiveness of the search strategies and the choice of databases can be different. Please contact the Lane Librarians if you have any questions. 


The type of information you gather is influenced by the type of information source or database you select to search. Bibliographic databases contain references to published literature, such as journal articles, conference abstracts, books, reports, government and legal publications, and patents. Literature reviews typically synthesis indexed, peer-reviewed articles (i.e. works that generally represent the latest original research and have undergone rigorous expert screening before publication), and gray literature (i.e. materials not formally published by commercial publishers or peer-reviewed journals). PubMed offers a breadth of health sciences literature and is a good starting point to locate journal articles.

What is PubMed?

PubMed is a free search engine accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. Available to the public online since 1996, PubMed was developed and is maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), located at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

MEDLINE is the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) premier bibliographic database that contains more than 27 million references to journal articles from more than 5,200 worldwide journals in life sciences with a concentration on biomedicine. The Literature Selection Technica Review Committee (LSTRC) reviews and selects journals for MEDLINE based on the research quality and impact of the journals. A distinctive feature of MEDLINE is that the records are indexed with NLM Medical Subject Headings (MeSH).

PubMed also contains citations for PubMed Central (PMC) articles. PMC is a full-text archive that includes articles from journals reviewed and selected by NLM for archiving (current and historical), as well as individual articles collected for archiving in compliance with funder policies. PubMed allows users to search keywords in the bibliographic data, but not the full text of the PMC articles.

How to Access PubMed?

To access PubMed, go to the Lane Library homepage and click PubMed in "Top Resources" on the left. This PubMed link is coded with Find Fulltext @ Lane Library Stanford that links you to Lane's full-text articles online.