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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.

What is a Literature Search?

A literature search is the act of gathering existing knowledge or data around a topic or research question.  

Regardless of the purpose of your literature search, all searches follow the same basic process:

  • Ask a question
  • Select a search resource
  • Develop search terms
  • Execute the search
  • Access results
  • Evaluate & improve your search

Each page in this guide explores a different step of the process and lays the groundwork for the following steps.

Why Search the Literature?

  • Develop a fundamental understanding of a topic of interest. 
    • E.g. "I want to learn more about treatment options available for quitting smoking."

  • Support the thesis/argument of an academic paper or presentation.
    • E.g. "I need some statistics for how smoking rates have changed over the last 20 years."    

  • Justify the need for further research in a given subject area.
    • E.g. "I'm designing a research study on the effectiveness of hypnosis for smoking cessation.  What's been done before?  What areas need further investigation?"    

  • Summarize/synthesizie existing evidence related to a given research question.
    • E.g. "I want to gather and synthesize all the existing studies that help answer the following research question: Are support groups more effective than nicotine-replacement products for helping teenagers quit smoking?"

  • Make evidence-informed decisions in a clinical setting.
    • E.g. "What treatment should I recommend to my teenage patient interested in quitting smoking?"