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PH 196: Undergraduate Capstone Library Sessions: Start Your Literature Search


public health library ceiling

Presented by Michael Sholinbeck (

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, including (in developing countries) during colonial times?
  » 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?

Let's talk about indexing!
  » 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)?
  » Is epidemiology a concept relating to the causes and distribution of diseases, or is it what epidemiologist do?
  » 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)
  • Index terms are sometimes called descriptors or thesaurus terms; in PubMed they are called Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH
    » More information and examples under the Find Articles and More tab.

Organizing Your Literature Search/Search Results

This "Planning your Literature Search" template (PDF; Univ. of Leicester) is a useful tool to help you plan your literature search.

This Literature Review Matrix (.doc) can help you organize what you find in your literature search.
(Revised from Health sciences literature review made easy: the matrix method, J. Garrard; Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2011) 

» You can adapt RefWorks, EndNote, Zotero, or Mendeley to be used with a matrix like this by using notes or custom fields in your database.

Save your search strategies

Nearly all the databases you use to find articles, etc., retain your search history for the duration of your session.

Literature reviews, like all research, should be rigorous and reproducible. Save or print your search history to help document your search strategy, which should include:

  • the date of the search(es),
  • search terms used (keywords; title words; MeSH/thesaurus terms/descriptors),
  • any limits (eg, language, publication dates) that you placed on your search,
  • the number of relevant citations you found in each database.

PubMed's History (click "Advanced" under the search box) and My NCBI can help with both saving your search strategy and the citations you find in PubMed. See the PubMed Tips guide for more information. Other databases have similar tools to save and/or download search history.