Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Moffitt Library, Main Stacks open for 24-hour access during RRR, finals weeks. Learn more.

Public Health Research for Undergraduate Scholars: Start


Dinosaur in VLSB; click for library home page

Public Health Librarian: 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 (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.


Questions, questions...

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:

  • 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 things that could reduce these disparities, differentiating 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.

What is a good Research Question? It is a question that:

  • identifies a relevant issue in your field;
  • pursues relatively uncharted research territories to address the problem;
  • piques the interest of others.

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:

  • "Our intervention worked toward fixing Problem X"
  • "The best intervention(s) for fixing Problem X is/are:..."

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

The Scientific Literature: Books, Handbooks and Protocols, Articles

When a topic is new to you and you need an overview of the topic, encyclopediae and textbooks are great at giving an overview or introduction.

For more detailed exploration of a topic, books provide the focus you want. UC Berkeley has millions of books!

For lab research, handbooks and lab protocols provide information on the materials and procedures for experimental work.

The next format type is journals. They report on the findings of current research studies, offering the most up-to-date and detailed information on a topic.
A single journal issue will have many articles, and each article is devoted to a research study. There is a standard pattern in how journal articles are written, and knowing this pattern will help you find the information you need:

  • An article’s introduction explains the context of the work and the importance of the research
  • The materials and/or methods section describes the experimental procedures
  • The results report on the data and the outcomes of the work
  • The discussion section interprets the results, whereby the authors explain the meaning and the implications of the research
  • Lastly, there are references to the scholarly works (other articles, etc.) used by the authors

Finally, databases are what you use to find journal articles. Databases let you search across many (often millions) of journal articles to find the papers relevant to your research topic.

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.

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.

SPIDER is a search structure used in qualitative research. SPIDER stands for Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research Type.

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

Database Top Tips, when searching any database

  1. Combine terms with AND or OR
  2. Search for your term as a word in the title or title or abstract (You may need to use Advanced Search; in PubMed you can also use Field Tags)
  3. Use the Similar Articles link, once you find a set of relevant citations (sometimes it is labelled Related Citations, Similar Records, etc.)
  4. Use Filters (sometimes called Facets) (eg, Ages, Article types, Languages, etc.; some databases have a "Peer Reviewed" or "Scholarly" filter!)
  5. Use Thesaurus Terms (sometimes called Descriptors; in PubMed they are called MeSH: Medical Subject Headings)
  6. Always keep in mind the question you are trying to answer when creating a search strategy and when reviewing the articles you find