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PH C117/IB C195: Global Health Research: Start


Dinosaur in VLSB; click for library home page

Presented by Michael Sholinbeck (

Today's exercise set: DOCX  |  PDF

Starting the Library Research Process

What causes disease?
For any "disease" or condition, you could start by considering interactions among environmental and social factors:

Poor diet, resulting from food choices, "causes" nutritional deficiency or obesity in a population

But consider:

  • Is it "caused" by historical distribution of land use (redlining and racism in the US; colonialism in some other countries)?
  • Or by the regulatory environment, including crop subsidies, food inspections, etc.?
  • What about the role of NGOs, IGOs, aid networks?
  • What about infrastructure, such as food distribution networks, transportation, etc.?
  • Is the status of women/girls a factor?
  • What about mental health issues?
  • What is the role of commercial activity?
  • What about the healthcare and health insurance system?

. . . Keep swimming upstream!

Also, consider that how issues are framed is influenced by our assumptions and biases.


Structuring Your Search

It may be useful to have a structure to help guide you when searching. 

When you formulate a research question, consider these elements:

  • Phenomenon: What happened?
  • Subject or Population: Who did it?
  • Time: When did it happen?
  • Location: Where did it happen?
  • Cause or Motivation: Why did it happen?
  • Process: How did it happen?

Note: It is possible that not all of the above elements will be appropriate for your search topic.
This exercise (docx) will take you through the process of formulating a search

PICO is another popular way to structure a search.
PICO stands for Patient or Population; Intervention; Comparison or Control; Outcome.
Embase has a PICO Search option.

Questions, questions...

Considering the question a research article addresses may help you determine if it's relevant to your needs.
Below are some examples of questions or lines of inquiry:

  • Are their racial or ethnic disparities in type 1 diabetes mellitus prevalence?
  • Compare and contrast personal versus "upstream" factors relevant to these disparities.
  • Describe examples of what may reduce these disparities, and differentiate between personal and upstream factors. 
  • If a policy or program increases disparities, what are possible reasons for this? Differentiate between personal and systemic factors.
  • Describe a plan/program/policy to reduce these disparities.
  • Justify why systemic or upstream factors contribute more to these disparities than personal factors.

Compare these two questions, to help evaluate any intervention studies you read:

  • "Our intervention worked toward fixing Problem X"
  • "The best interventions for fixing Problem X are ..."

Finding a systematic review that addresses the question you are interested in can be very helpful

Primary Literature

Primary research presents original research methods or findings for the first time. A primary source is a document (or object) which was written or created during the time under study, by someone who was present during an experiment or experience, and offers an firsthand view of a particular event. Especially in the sciences, an "experience" or "event" includes a research study or process.

In science, primary literature is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories.

A good way to evaluate whether or not a scientific article is a primary source is whether the article has a Materials and Methods (or similar) section.  If the article discusses methods, it is likely primary literature.

Secondary literature does not report new findings, and includes review articles and most scholarly or academic books, including textbooks.


Let's talk about indexing!

Words matter!

  • Do you want articles on labor or articles on labor? Or is it labour?
  • Do you want articles on HIV (a virus) or articles on HIV diseases (such as AIDS)?
  • What's the difference between diet, food, food supply, food habits, food chain, nutritional status, eating, energy intake, ...?
  • Is lead a noun or a verb?

Indexing facilitates more precise search statements, especially for topics that are vague or ambiguous.

  • Using index terms also helps you avoid the need to think of every possible synonym or alternate spelling of your search terms.
  • Indexing means the citations in the database are assigned terms from a controlled vocabulary (Not all databases use a controlled vocabulary, however)
  • But be aware of the fact that indexing schemes are shaped by the cultural milieu from which they originate
  • Index terms are sometimes called descriptors or thesaurus terms; in PubMed they are called Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH