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Medicine: How to search


Before you start searching online resources, it's good to have a grasp of some of the general techniques of online searching.

Note: Databases and other online resources are similar in what they offer and what they do, but are different in their specific appearance and functionality. It's a good idea to check a database's Help section to check and confirm how to search in that particular database.

Common Search Tips

There are a number of techniques you can use while searching to get better and more relevant results.

Basic and advanced search

Basic search usually involves one search box, with a few options about searching a specific collection or field. This is great for general searching. When you have multiple keywords or complex search queries, using Advanced search can be helpful. This usually involves several different boxes for your different keywords, built-in search operators, and more options for field searching and limiters.

Most databases will have a link to Advanced Search next to their Basic search option. Advanced Search in Google Scholar is accessible from the menu.

Search operators

Use these with your keywords to refine your searches and specify exactly what you want to find. These are most useful in journal databases and Primo Search. (Some of them won't work as well in Google Scholar.)

Search Operator Example
Use AND to retrieve results that contain both of your search terms. police AND federal
Use OR to retrieve results that contain any or all of your search terms. politics OR government
Using NOT to exclude irrelevant results. canine NOT dental
Group terms or equivalent keywords with parentheses to create complex searches. (tertiary OR university) AND education
Use quotation marks to search for a phrase "lung cancer"
Search for terms with different word endings using an asterisk. manag* = manage, managed, managing, management
A question mark can be used to replace a single letter within a word. analy?e = analyse, analyze

Field searching and limiters

Most databases will allow you to specify which field you want to search. Common fields include author, title, dates, and subject headings/topic, and these are usually available in both basic and advanced search. 

Once you've searched, you can also limit your results by some of these fields. This is extremely useful if you want all of your articles to have been published within a certain date range, or for them all to be peer-reviewed. Look for these in the menus beside your search results. 

Search frameworks

Search frameworks are mnemonics which can help you focus your research question. They are also useful in helping you to identify the concepts and terms you will use in your literature search.

PICO is a search framework commonly used in the health sciences to focus clinical questions.  As an example, you work in an aged care facility and are interested in whether cranberry juice might help reduce the common occurrence of urinary tract infections.  The PICO framework would look like this:


  People living in aged care facilities


  Cranberry juice


  No cranberry juice (status quo)


  Prevention of UTIs

Now that the issue has been broken up to its elements, it is easier to turn it into an answerable research question: “Does cranberry juice help reduce urinary tract infections in people living in aged care facilities?”

Other frameworks may be helpful, depending on your question and your field of interest. PICO can be adapted to PICOT (which adds Time) or PICOS (which adds Study design), or PICOC (adding Context).

For qualitative questions you could use

  • SPIDER: Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type  

For questions about causes or risk,

  • PEO: Population, Exposure, Outcomes

For evaluations of interventions or policies, 

  • SPICE: Setting, Population or Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation or
  • ECLIPSE: Expectation, Client group, Location, Impact, Professionals, SErvice 

See the University of Notre Dame Australia’s examples of some of these frameworks. 

You can also try some PICO examples in the National Library of Medicine's PubMed training site: Using PICO to frame clinical questions.

TIP:  If you use all the elements of your search framework to combine terms, you may find you have narrowed the search too much and will struggle to find relevant studies. Try using only the most critical elements from the mnemonic for concepts to search. For example, in a PICO search, you would sometimes exclude the O (outcome) terms in your search strategy as the outcomes may come from combining the other terms. If the C (comparison) is the status quo, you wouldn't use those terms either. Try to avoid concepts that have vague or broad meanings, such as benefits or health effects.

Ask your Faculty Librarian for help and advice!

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