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Literature Reviews in the Health Sciences: Searching the Literature

Searching the Literature

Step 1.  Develop a search plan.

  1. Choose appropriate electronic resources (core databases, additional databases, grey literature).
  2. Identify key concepts & associated terminology.
  3. Identify inclusion, exclusion criteria relevant to the search (e.g., no animal studies, date ranges, language limits, study types)
  4. Build a search strategy in a core database. 
  5. Review & revise!

  6. Transfer the search strategy to all chosen databases.

Step 2. Validate the search. The "PRESS" checklist can be used to evaluate a search strategy.  See -
McGowan, J., Sampson, M., & Lefebvre, C. (2010). An Evidence Based Checklist for the Peer Review of Electronic Search Strategies (PRESS EBC). Evidence Based Library And Information Practice, 5(1), 149-154.

Step 3.  Conduct and document search strategies and  results.  See below for sample documentation tools (developed by Margaret Sampson)


Step 4. Extend the search. Search grey literature, track citations from reference sections, hand search table of contents of key journals, contact experts.

Step 5. Update & revise as needed.


Managing the Citations

Systematic review searches yield large numbers of citations that need to be de-duplicated and stored.  Bibliographic management tools are essential.  Below is a list of some common tools.

Available through the Library


Freely Available



Requires Purchase (but more powerful and often preferred for systematic reviews)

Reference Manager

Endnote (Desktop)


Distiller SR is a software designed to manage the SR from de-duplication through to data extraction (see the "Systematic Review Tools" page for more information).  This product is very helpful in the de-duplication process and subsequent steps but a bibliographic management tool will still be necessary, especially at the publication stage.

Documenting A Literature Search

Describe the Literature Search (Method Section)

The acronym STARLITE can assist in your description of your literature search (Booth A. “Brimful of STARLITE”: Toward standards for reporting literature searches. J Med Libr Assoc. 2006;94(4):421–9)

S – sampling strategy
T – type of study
A – approaches (e.g., citation tracking, hand searching)
R – range of years
L – limits
I -  inclusion / exclusion criteria
T – terms used
E – electronic sources


Report the Results (Results Section).

The PRISMA diagram has become the standard mechanism for reporting the results of the literature search for systematic reviews.  See

Additional Resources

Online Guides and Tutorials.

Formulate a Search Strategy



Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions - online or print.  This is likely the single best source for systematic reviews.

Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD), University of York, UK - see the section called "Our Guidance"

Grey Matters: a practical tool for evidence-based searching (from CADTH)



JAMAEvidence - see Users' Guides to the Medical Literature, Chapter 4 "Finding the Evidence"