What causes disease?
How you conceptualize your topic affects how you search for relevant information.
Consider first perhaps the interaction of environmental factors (eg, pollution, outbreaks) and social factors (eg, smoking, drug use). You may also wish to consider other aspects of your topic.
What is the wider context of your topic? Do some preliminary exploration, both in the literature and in discussions with your teachers, advisors, and peers. What are the relevant scientific and policy circumstances?
Always keep in mind the question you are trying to answer, and keep swimming upstream!
What is the scope of your search?
Literature searching always 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. However, if you are conducting a systematic review, you should have your inclusion/exclusion criteria set before you conduct your search.
Which disciplines are concerned with your topic? Which aspect(s) - legal, political, environmental, behavioral etc. - of your topic 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 only search PubMed.
The importance of indexing
Below are some examples of questions or lines of inquiry.
Considering what question a research article addresses may help you determine if it's relevant to your needs:
What is a good Research Question? It is a question that:
This blog post has tips on how to write a good research question, including examples of bad, good, and great questions.
What is the question being addressed in the study you are reading? Compare:
Finding a systematic review that addresses the question you are interested in can be very helpful
It may be useful to have a structure to help guide you when searching.
When you formulate a research question, consider these elements:
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.
SPIDER is a search structure used in qualitative research. SPIDER stands for Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research Type.
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.
Is there an agenda (bias)?
It's 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's relevant.
Things to consider:
Who pays for science? Does it matter? (There is evidence that it does matter)
Research may be funded by:
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.
Take a look at a few citations (.doc) on the topics discussed above
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?
(Adopted from Chapter 3, Conducting research literature reviews : from the Internet to paper, by Arlene Fink; Sage, 2010.)
Extensive discussions of reliability and validity are available in several texts, such as Textbook in Psychiatric Epidemiology (3rd Ed.; M. Tsuang et al. Wiley. 2011; See chapters 5 and 7).
What to consider when looking at survey or estimated data: