The Literature Searching guide shows you how to complete an effective literature search from beginning to end. Use the tabs at the top of the page to navigate through the guide.
Remember: the Library team provides a range of research support services to Monash Health employees and students. Attend a live webinar, book a research consultation, or request a literature search and get in touch with the Library team if you have any questions.
Before hitting the databases, you should plan your search strategy. Planning will help you gain an understanding of your research topic, which will inform your research question, the direction you want to take, and the key concepts that you want to focus on. Without careful planning your search could become disjointed, and you may miss important papers.
Formulating an answerable question
A clear clinical question with define your information need, identify search concepts, and help you select appropriate resources to search.
The PICO acronym helps structure your clinical question to ensure that it is answerable. This makes it easier to locate the most appropriate evidence for your situation and reduces the risk of concepts being left out. PICO is widely used in professional practice and strongly advocated as a tool in the national health standards. Being as detailed and explicit as possible will help you create a PICO framework that is both focused and comprehensive.
PICO's meaning is best explained by its four key elements, which are:
Note: the PICO framework is best suited to questions of clinical effectiveness. If your research question is focused on experiential data, cost-effectiveness, or something else, click the "PICO alternatives" tab to view alternative frameworks.
In PICOT, the 'T' is for a specified time period, e.g. "over 5 years" or "24 hours after surgery". It can also be a type of study -- e.g. qualitative study -- or test.
Here, the 'S' stands for study type or study design. Depending on your question, certain study types may be more appropriate clinical evidence than others. E.g. RCTs for therapy questions
The 'C' is for context (or place), e.g. "the ED", "teaching hospitals", or "high-income countries".
It is important to fill knowledge gaps before you start developing a search strategy. This can help:
Background searching can be done using a variety of sources.
The Library catalogue is a good place to start looking for background information such as:
Clinical support tools such as UpToDate, BMJ Best Practice, and the Australian Medicines Handbook are good for background information on clinical queries. Visit the Library website for a full list of clinical support tools and information on how to access them onsite and remotely.
These frameworks may be more appropriate for qualitative questions, such as those investigating experiences or perspectives.
P = Population
I = phenomenon of Interest
Co = Context
S = Sample
PI = Phenomenon of Interest
D = Design
E = Evaluation
R = Research type
S = Setting
P = Perspective
I = Intervention
C = Comparison
E = Evaluation
Etiology and/or Risk
The PEO framework is designed for questions looking at the association between risk factors (or exposures) and outcomes.
P = Population
E = Exposure (independent variable)
O = Outcome (dependent variable)
Prevalence or Incidence
To search for studies on the prevalence or incidence of a given condition, use the memorably named CoCoPop framework.
Co = Condition
Co = Context
Pop = Population
Diagnostic Test Accuracy
If you are searching specifically for studies relating to diagnostic test accuracy, you can use the PIRD framework.
P = Population
I = Index test
R = Reference test
D = Diagnosis of interest
To learn more about searching for studies of diagnostic test accuracy, see the JBI Manual for Evidence Synthesis. The manual is designed for those undertaking a systematic review or other evidence synthesis work, however the general principles can be applied to any literature search.
Other Research Questions
The below frameworks may be more suitable for questions relating to service improvement, cost-effectiveness, or similar.
E = Expectation
C = Client
For more information on alternative question frameworks including examples, visit the guide below from the University of London.
After developing a clear research question, consider whether your search will be more sensitive or more precise. Read on to learn more about the differences between each approach and the practical implications for your search process.
What does sensitivity vs. precision mean?
Put very simply, these terms equate to the size of the 'net' that you use to 'catch' relevant literature during your search.
The more sensitive your search, the bigger your net. The more precise your search, the smaller your net.
A comprehensive search that retrieves the maximum amount of relevant studies, but which requires additional time and resources for filtering and screening results. As sensitivity increases, so does the number of results.
A highly sensitive search casts a wide net and therefore has lower precision.
A targeted search that captures the most relevant studies, but does not necessarily locate every single piece of relevant literature.
A highly precise search risks missing relevant studies -- as it casts a small net -- but this approach is still suitable in many situations.
Which approach is right for you?
An ideal search for your research question will strike an appropriate balance between sensitivity and precision. Although a balance can be achieved, it is impossible to cater for both 100% sensitivity and precision at the same time. You will need to decide which approach to favour based on your question, resources (e.g. time for screening results), and situation.
In practice, the balance between sensitivity and precision is determined by the search question and a researcher’s objectives.
It is useful to build a 'gold set' of relevant references before you develop your search strategy. Also referred to as a 'sample set', a gold set refers to a collection of exemplar articles that are highly relevant to your topic of interest, with sound study design.
How to use a 'gold set'
How to collect a ‘gold set'?
The papers in your gold set may come from a variety of sources:
Monash Health acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land, the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples, and we pay our respects to them, their culture and their Elders past, present and future.
We are committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment that embraces all backgrounds, cultures, sexualities, genders and abilities.