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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.

Develop Search Terms

Search terms are the building blocks of an effective search.  How effectively you select, arrange, and combine search terms will determine the success of your search.  The movement from question to search terms is illustrated here:



Each step of this process is explored below.

Identifying Key Concepts

All questions contain key concepts.  Key Concepts are the elements/ideas that will be present in an ideal search result.

Key concepts frequently align with the elements of your PICO(T) or PS question. For example, the key concepts in the following question are bolded:

In teenagers who smoke [Population], are support groups [Intervention] as effective as nicotine replacement therapy [Comparator] for quitting smoking [Outcome]?


Keywords are terms and phrases that indicate that a given key concept is represented in a result.  These terms come from the authors of a given result.  For example, if the keyword "high school students" appears in an article's title, we can assume that this article deals with our concept of teenagers. 

You can brainstorm keywords for each of your key concepts.  For example:



Support Groups "peer support*" "support group*" "self help group*"
Nicotine Replacement "nicotine replacement"  "nicotine patch*"  "Nicorette"
Quitting Smoking "quit smoking" "stop smoking" "former smoker*"
Teenagers "teen*" "adolescent*" "high school student*"

Subject Headings

Subject Headings are database-specific tags that identify the key concepts represented in a result.  These terms are supplied by the database gathering the results.  For example, if an article is assigned the subject heading "Smoking Cessation" in the Medline database, we know that the article deals with our concept of quitting smoking.

The appropriate subject heading(s) for your concept may differ across databases. For example:


Subject Headings (By Database)


Support Group Social Support/ Support Group/ MH Support Groups
Nicotine Replacement Tobacco Use Cessation Products/ Nicotine Replacement Therapy/

MH Nicotine Replacement Therapy

Quitting Smoking Smoking Cessation/ Smoking Cessation/ MH Smoking Cessation
Teenagers Adolescent/ Adolescent/  MH Adolescence

Note: Not all search tools use Subject Headings to describe content. In these cases, searching with keywords alone is sufficient.

You can learn how to identify subject headings in various databases by reviewing the tutorials below.

Database Tutorials

For a detailed explanation of how to apply these tips and strategies to specific databases, check out HSL's database tutorial videos: