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Literature Review: Developing a search strategy

This guide will define a literature review, describe the process of writing a literature review and examine where to search for literature

From research question to search strategy

Keeping a record of your search activity

Good search practice could involve keeping a search diary or document detailing your search activities (Phelps et. al. 2007, pp. 128-149), so that you can keep track of effective search terms, or to help others to reproduce your steps and get the same results. 

This record could be a document, table or spreadsheet with:

  • The names of the sources you search and which provider you accessed them through - eg Medline (Ovid), Web of Science (Thomson Reuters). You should also include any other literature sources you used.
  • The search strategies that you applied when searching different sources (eg Medline, Web of Science) can be added as an appendix to your document. This provides additional detail on:
    • how you searched (keyword and/or subject headings)
    • which search terms you used (which words and phrases)
    • any search techniques you employed (truncation, adjacency, etc)
    • how you combined your search terms (AND/OR). Check out the Database Help guide for more tips on Boolean Searching.
  • The number of search results from each source and each strategy used. This can be the evidence you need to prove a gap in the literature, and confirms the importance of your research question.
Tip: you will be doing a number of searches as your initial search evolves. As your thesis, discussions and argument develops you will search for further evidence and support from the literature. Each search should be included in your search record.

A search planner may help you to organise you thoughts prior to conducting your search. If you have any problems with organising your thoughts prior, during and after searching please contact your Library Faculty Team  for individual help.

Literature search cycle

This diagram illustrates the literature search cycle. It shows a circle in quarters. Top left quarter is identify main concepts with rectangle describing how to do this by identifying:controlled vocabulary terms, synonyms, keywords and spelling. Top right quarter select library resources to search and rectangle describing resources to search library catalogue relevant journal articles and other resource. Bottom right corner of circle search resources and in rectangle consider using boolean searching proximity searching and truncated searching techniques. Bottom left quarter of circle review and refine results. In rectangle evaluate results, rethink keywords and create alerts.

Have a search framework

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!

Contact Your Faculty Team Librarian

Faculty librarians are here to provide assistance to students, researchers and academic staff by providing expert searching advice, research and curriculum support.

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