Literature search standards

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 7 March 2016


See also Evidence-based health care | Expert searching | Reporting standards for literature reviews in health | Systematic review searching | Systematic reviewing software | The role of health librarians in systematic reviews

"...A literature search is an organized search for literature published on a specific topic. A well-structured literature search is the most effective and efficient way to locate sound evidence on a subject. Evidence may be found in academic journals, books, government documents, reports, and the internet..." — Grey Nuns Hospital, Alberta

The literature search is an increasingly important part of practicing medicine in the 21st century especially in practicing evidence-based medicine. Most physicians today have explored the possibilities of large search engines such as Google and Bing, but these resources have their limitations. In other words, despite the power of Googling for medical answers, literature searching is the sine qua non of EBM and differs in significant ways from broad Google searching. One is relevance, which is important as the numbers of papers increases in the digital age. And two is the importance of specificity; consider an internal medicine physician searching for "polycythemia vera", a blood disorder, via Google or Google Scholar. Due to the virtue of Google, the most popular pages on any subject are presented first on the results page; usually one or more entries is from Wikipedia; another from a commercial information site; and others from state agencies and medical associations. Although relevant for some questions, they are probably not what a clinician or medical researcher needs to begin their work. A literature search in Medline is needed!

Background projects

  • XLabs is undertaking a UK government-funded research project investigating the use of complex search strategies in the workplace. We are interested in how people formulate search strategies to address complex information needs, particularly in (systematic) literature review. We would like to invite you to share your experience by participating in the following survey:
  • This survey instrument builds on previous studies such as the Khresmoi study of online search behaviour of medical health professionals and focuses on the process of query formulation (e.g. use of Boolean operators, truncation, fielded searches, etc.) Our goal is to better understand patterns of search behaviour both within a given sector and also across sectors (e.g. healthcare vs. legal). More details about the project can be found here:

Canada Search Standards Working Group 800px-Flag of Canada.svg.png

Seeing the need for shared health services library standards for consistency within our own multi-site services, for teaching health librarianship, and for quality improvement indicator development, a group of Canadian librarians formed a "standards working group" in 2014. Our goal was to develop a set of standards for literature searching in health services libraries across Canada. In 2014, we started work on a literature searching standard for health services libraries written by librarians, for librarians. We presented our findings at the CHLA/ABSC 2015 conference and conducted a Delphi survey in 2015. Stay tuned for developments.

Towards a taxonomy of search standards

  • Search Type: Factual Search / Question
  • Definition: Confirms a fact or answers a single question with a fact (=ready reference) (Carter, 2000)
  • Search Type: Quick Education
  • Definition: To provide a client with a dozen or so items which constitute a good introduction to a field of interest (Bates, 1976)
  • Search Type: Scoping Search
  • Definition: A literature search that seeks to determine rapidly and efficiently the scale of a predefined topic to inform the subsequent conduct of a review (Booth, 2012)
  • Search Type: Systematic Search (NOT a Systematic Review)
  • Definition: A thorough search of a broad range of sources found from source lists of similar topic reviews to identify relevant studies to your research question. 5 stages of the search include: scoping search, the search, bibliographic searching, verification (i.e. consultation with experts), documenting the search (Booth, 2012); also: a thorough, objective and reproducible search of a range of sources to ID as many relevant studies as possible within resource limits (Cochrane handbook)

Literature search MOOC


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