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Searching the Literature: The Basics

Learn how to effectively search the literature with tips on asking questions, selecting resources, and developing search terms.

Ask a Question

A good question...

  • Focuses your information need
  • Identifies key search concepts
  • Points you in the direction of appropriate search resources

Background/Foreground Questions

Background Questions seek out foundational information, established knowledge, and facts/statistics. 

Examples include:

  • What drugs are used to treat hypertension?
  • What are some approaches to psychological assessment?
  • What percentage of Canadian teenagers smoke cigarettes?


Foreground Questions seek out research evidence and usually require some degree of synthesis (i.e. drawing on evidence from multiple sources) in order to answer.  Foreground questions tend to be more specific than background questions and incorporate multiple concepts.

  • E.g.) Are beta-blockers more effective than thiazide diuretics at controlling hypertension in older adults who have had a heart attack?


Foreground questions can be further divided into two categories:

Qualitative Questions Quantitative Questions

Discover meaning or gain an understanding of a phenomena. They ask about an individual's or population's experience of certain situations or circumstances.  

E.g.)  How do individuals with post traumatic stress disorder experience the process of one-on-one interviews for psychological assessment?

Discover cause and effect relationships by comparing two or more individuals or groups based on differing outcomes associated with exposures or interventions.

E.g.) Are non-smoking females with daily exposure to second-hand smoke more likely to develop breast cancer when compared to those with no exposure to second-hand smoke?

Question Templates

Building an effective foreground question can be challenging.  The following templates will help: