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HSB/PHN Capstone: Library Resources: Starting Library Research


public health library ceiling

Presented by Michael Sholinbeck (

Before You Start: Your Topic, the Scope of Your Search, Where to Look

What causes disease? 

How you conceptualize your topic affects how you search for relevant information. All inquiries are partial and are shaped by ingrained assumptions and values. (Source).

An example:
Consider first the interaction of environmental factors (eg, pollution, outbreaks) and social factors (eg, smoking, drug use). But you may also wish to consider other aspects of your topic.

  • Is exacerbation of asthma in West Oakland "caused" by air pollution and/or smoking? 
    • Or, is it "caused" by inadequate regulation of transportation, energy production, and/or tobacco? 
    • Or by historical racism in housing and neighborhood characteristics? 
    • What about genetic factors? poverty? stress? 
    • What about access to health insurance and/or appropriate prescription drugs? 

Think about the wider context of your topic. Do some preliminary exploration, both in the literature and in discussions with your instructors, advisors, and peers. What are the relevant scientific and policy circumstances?

Especially when researching for policy-related questions, determine whether you are looking for evidence to clarify a policy issue, options to address a problem, implementation considerations, or evaluation concerns. This will help refine your question and your search. (Source).

Is your topic researchable?

You may need to broaden or narrow the focus of your topic. 
This may become more apparent as you search for and find information. It may prove difficult to find research on very narrow topics, or to cope with the vast literature on an unfocused, broad topic.

  • "Growth and development of viruses"
  • "Growth and development of Adenoviridae"
  • "Growth and development of Adenoviridae in outer space" 

What is the scope of your search? 

Literature searching often involves balancing finding all relevant citations (which means you may also find many non-relevant citations), with finding only relevant citations (which means you may miss some relevant citations).

The search scope, as well as the purpose and audience of your literature search, influences how you focus your search when using online databases, as well as when you decide you have "enough."

Remember that research is not a linear process; you may find yourself modifying your search terms as you explore your topic.

Which disciplines are concerned with your topic? Which aspect(s) of your topic - legal, political, environmental, behavioral etc. - is/are of interest? 

Answering these questions will help you decide which databases to search for literature. Although PubMed may be the best place to start for most public health topics, you may miss key literature if you do not use other resources.

What to consider as you find articles and other documents:

  • What is the contribution to the field of knowledge of each?
  • What are their methods and are they valid?
  • What are their relationships to other works?
  • What are the gaps in knowledge?

Recommended Books

Critically Evaluating What You Find

"Research users are not passive recipients of distilled wisdom, they are active agents of critique and creative analysis."
- from "How to 'QuantCrit:' Practices and Questions for Education Data Researchers and Users," W. Castillo and D. Gillborn, 2018.

Evaluation is about determining the quality, value, or importance of something in order to take action. It is underpinned by the systematic collection of information and evidence.

What is evidence?
All research is (potentially) "evidence" and there are no "perfect" studies. 
Critically evaluating what you read will help any unearth biases or methodological shortcomings that may be present.
Examples of problematic methods descriptions. From: T. Greenhalgh. How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine and Healthcare. John Wiley & Sons, 2019.

Is there an agenda (bias)?
It is doubtful that any study of humans is without some kind of bias, either in the study design, or in the author's pre-existing beliefs. How bias in methodology was controlled and the significance of bias in any particular study is what is relevant. Also relevant is whether the researchers addressed their biases intentionally.

Things to consider:

  • The question being addressed: What kind of research gets funded?
  • Publication bias: Research that shows no effect tends not to get published.
  • Conflict of interest, author affiliation, source(s) of funding: Does the researcher have a vested interest in the outcome? Many authors do not disclose industry payments.
  • Documentation and assumptions: Are all stated "facts" referenced?
  • Peer review: Peer review refers to a process whereby a scholarly work (ie, an article) is reviewed and critiqued by experts to ensure it meets some standards of acceptance before it is published. Does this process make for better science?
  • Authority: Does the researcher have the knowledge to work in this area?
  • Significance of a single study: Science is an incremental process; one study rarely "changes everything."

Who pays for science? Does it matter?  (There is evidence that it does matter).
Research is usually funded by:

  • Government;
  • Industry/trade groups;
  • Private foundations/associations/educational institutions.

This article (PDF) discusses the "manufactured uncertainty" created by industry groups that sponsor research and publishing on chemicals.

Is qualitative research "evidence"?

If your goal is to understand beliefs and meanings in the group with whom you are working, then qualitative studies can be important.

Reliability and validity
Reliable data collection: relatively free from "measurement error:" 
Is the survey written at a reading level too high for the people completing it? 
If I measure something today, then measure it again tomorrow using the same scale, will it vary? Why? 

Validity refers to how well a measure assesses what it claims to measure:
If the survey is supposed to measure "quality of life," how is that concept defined? Is it measurable?

What to consider when looking at survey or estimated data:

  • Look at sample sizes and survey response rates - representative of your population? Enough responses to be valid?
  • Who was surveyed? Are they representative of population being compared to? Include group you are interested in? Is the sample "WEIRD"?
  • Were the survey respondents from heterogeneous groups? Do the survey questions have a similar meaning to members of different groups?
  • How was survey conducted? Via telephone? - Many people only have cell phones. Random selection or targeted group?
  • What assumptions and methods were used for extrapolating the data?
  • Look at definitions of characteristics - Does this match your own definitions?
  • When was the data collected?

How is race/ethnicity reported in the studies you read?:

  • Who identified race/ethnicity of respondents/participants?
  • Does the language in the article impart bias?
  • Is race acknowledged as a social construct?
  • Are differences reported as associated with "race" or "racism"?
  • Are participants' identities disaggregated?