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Although most of us have had some experience obtaining references for term papers or assignments, technology has forever changed how we locate information. Our expectations have changed in terms of how quickly we want the information, the volume of data available, and virtual accessibility. These expectations have required us to become better skilled at locating and using resources.

Clinicians may go to the literature to expand their knowledge or simply to stay on top of scientific advances as part of professional development and life-long learning. They may also gather information specifically for clinical decision making as part of the framework of evidence-based practice (see Chapter 1, Figure 1.2). Using the "best research evidence" available allows the practitioner to balance that information with clinical judgment and patient values to determine the most appropriate course of action. This process, of course, assumes that the clinician is able to locate the relevant research literature.

Researchers will review the literature in the development of a research question (see Chapter 7) and the interpretation of findings. The literature review is necessary to build the rationale for a study and to help make decisions on operational definitions and methods. Researchers who conduct systematic reviews require a comprehensive approach to searching for primary sources of data on a given topic (see Chapter 16).

In other words, we all need to develop skills in searching the literature so that we can find what we want when we need it. The purpose of this chapter is to describe strategies for successful literature searches.


There are many efficient strategies for locating research references. The library, of course, is where this process begins, whether this is an actual building or a virtual connection. Clinicians may have access to a departmental or institutional library, but medical and university libraries will usually be more complete. Most libraries today have online catalogues that allow searching by author, title or subject. Articles, books or theses that are not available at a local facility can often be obtained electronically or through interlibrary loan. Many facilities also provide access to full text downloads of articles, sometimes for a fee. Technology has greatly enhanced everyone's access to literature searches through Internet resources.


Many specialized library resources are available to assist the researcher in locating references on specific topics. Search engines are information retrieval systems that search the Internet and electronic databases for websites, files or documents based on keywords or phrases. Meta-search engines query several other search engines and/or databases simultaneously, allowing the user access to broader resources by entering search criteria only one time.

Some search engines specialize in health and medical topics (see Table 31.1). The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which is part of the National Library of ...

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