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Subject guide to library related topics

Literature searching advice (for Nursing)

Before you begin searching the academic literature

The Little Book of Literature Searching is a brief introduction to potentially useful steps towards success in finding relevant academic literature. It was assembled in preparation for library sessions for the nursing students of University of Edinburgh’s School of Health in Social Science in mind but is applicable to any topic.

Database search tips are covered elsewhere.

The Little Book of Literature Searching



Thinking about your topic - more search terms, inclusion/exclusion criteria

For health related topics, a research question framework is often used to guide identification of what would make a piece of work useful.

PICOS/T, PEO, PICo, SPIDER Frameworks (plus ECLIPSe and SPICE) (pdf)

Thinking about your topic in this way:

  1. Helps more clearly define the research you are willing to use.

  2. Can add to your stock of search terms.

  3. Helps set the criteria by which you choose to include, or exclude, results returned by your search(es).

Assigning aspects of your research question to PICO(S/T) headings is common:

Some research questions will have multiple entries for some headings, eg both parents and their children, or educators and the population they educate. Other research questions may not lend themselves to populating all of the headings and for others, a different framework is more appropriate.

Be taken through the process of mapping your topic to the PICO framework to creating the basis of a search strategy:

Hull York Medical School Library's Creating a PICO scenario

Hull York Medical School creating a PICO scenario

Alternative frameworks which may help fully develop the scope of what the literature needs to address and which are a better fit for your topic:

University of Maryland Libraries' guide for a longer list with suggestions of discipline or type of question for which each could be useful:

Developing a research question: Frameworks

City, University of London's Library guide includes two Maryland does not:

Using a framework to structure your question

Abstracting & Indexing Databases - which to use

For a systematically conducted literature review, you will be expected to use relevant Abstracting & Indexing databases (databases) which contain details of journal articles (theses, conference papers and some book chapters).

Databases (and other resources) with content relevant to nursing topics, are listed on the webpage below.

Nursing databases

 - Get to a database by clicking on/selecting its title.

You will see on that page a description for each database to help you decide which may be appropriate to use for your review. However... will be expected to have used:

  • CINAHL Plus
    • The main nursing one.
    • The main clinical medicine one.
    • PubMed is the free interface to MEDLINE.
    • The Library’s links are to a search platform/interface called “Ovid”.
  • psycINFO
    • Use if there is any psychological or psychiatric aspect to your topic, including attitudes and beliefs of any particular group.


Others to consider include:

  • Embase
    • Another clinical medicine database but good for coverage of European journals which MEDLINE may not index.
  • Global Health
    • Use if your topic is connected to developing countries.

Both of these can be searched at the same time as psycINFO and MEDLINE because we buy access to them from the search platform “Ovid”. This also allows you to get some deduplication done by the search platform.


If the professionals or population you are interested in are community based consider:

  • ASSIA (Applied Social Science Index and Abstracts).
  • Sociological Abstracts.

If your topic includes school based interventions or happens in schools, use:

  • ERIC

The databases tend to cover theses in their subject areas but if you want to know you have searched across all subject areas, include:

  • ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global

These last four can all be searched together because they are hosted on the same search platform, called “ProQuest”.

Theses databases


Appraisal Checklists

Checklists or critical appraisal tools/worksheets are designed to help with the evaluation (reliability and relevance) of reading material found. There are different checklists for reports of different research methodologies, eg randomised control trials, cohort studies, economic studies. They can also help you think about your search strategy as well as being used as templates should you be publishing research of a particular methodology.

PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) is the source of commonly used flow diagrams used to present to readers how the results of a search focus as the screening process progresses. In addition it has checklists for assessing the quality of a systematic review and, in the Extensions section, for other types of reviews as well:

PRISMA statement

Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP) provides resources to enable systematic assessment of the trustworthiness, relevance and results of published papers.Checklists provided are for RCTs, systematic reviews, qualitative, diagnostic and case control studies, also economic evaluation and clinical prediction rule.

CASP Checklists

Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM)'s critical appraisal tools are for systematic reviews, diagnostics, prognosis, RCTs, qualitative studies and IPD review.

CEBM Critical Appraisal worksheets

Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) critical appraisal tools include analytical cross sectional studies, case control studies, case reports, case series, cohort studies, diagnostic test accuracy studies, economic evaluations prevalence studies, qualitative research, quasi-experimental studies, RCTs, systematic reviews and for text and opinion:

JBI critical appraisal tools

The “Journal of Mixed Methods Research” in 2019 presented in an editorial its checklist for authors .

Fetters, M. D., & Molina-Azorin, J. F. (2019) A Checklist of Mixed Methods Elements in a Submission for Advancing the Methodology of Mixed Methods Research, Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 13(4), 414-423.

Naicker’s Critically Appraising for Antiracism Tool is a supplementary tool developed to support appraisers in explicitly addressing racial bias and available, with supporting documentation, from the author's Critically Appraising for Antiracism website.

Critically Appraising for Antiracism

ROBIS (Risk Of Bias In Systematic reviews) from Population Health Sciences at the University of Bristol is a checklist for assessing systematic reviews:

ROBIS - Risk Of Bias In Systematic reviews

SIGN checklists are for systematic reviews and meta-analyses, RCTs, cohort, case-control, diagnostic and economic studies.

SIGN Checklists

NICE guidelines' manual (NICE process and methods [PMG20]) in Appendix H, assigns appraisal checklists to study type.

NICE: Tools and Resources for Appendix H: Appraisal checklists, evidence tables, GRADE and economic profiles

In 2014, Appendix 2 of NICE's Interim methods guide for developing service guidance, NICE process and methods [PMG8] provided the checklists:

Scoping Reviews

"A scoping review seeks to explore and define conceptual and logistic boundaries around a particular topic with a view to informing a future predetermined systematic review or primary research."

Sutton, A., Clowes, M., Preston, L., & Booth, A. (2019). Meeting the review family: exploring review types and associated information retrieval requirements. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 36(3), 202-222.

"The method adopted for identifying literature in a scoping study needs to achieve in‐depth and broad results. Rather than being guided by a highly focussed research question that lends itself to searching for particular study designs (as might be the case in a systematic review), the scoping study method is guided by a requirement to identify all relevant literature regardless of study design."

Arksey, H. & O'Malley, L. (2005) Scoping studies: towards a methodological framework, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 8(1), 19-32.

Introduction to JBI (Joanna Briggs Insitute) Manual for Evidence Synthesis: Scoping Reviews Protocol chapter

University of South Australia's Scoping Reviews Library Guide

PRISMA for Scoping Reviews is a checklist of 20 essential reporting items and 2 optional items to include when completing a scoping review.

PRISMA for Scoping Reviews

Review Protocols

It is possible to post or publish a review or meta-analysis protocol, just as it is possible to register prospective clinical trials. A registered review "marks territory" and provides an indication of time and money being better spent reviewing a different research question. However, not all registered review protocols result in a published review.

There is a PRISMA checklist (produced in 2015) for systematic review protocols which may help in their completion.

PRISMA for systematic review protocols (PRISMA-P)

Protocol Registers include:

JBI Systematic Review Register - systematic and scoping review protocols of JBI (Joanna Briggs Institute) affiliates.

PROSPERO: International prospective register of systematic reviews.

Resources which accept (without charge) other review protocols and research output:

Figshare - open repository of research output.

Research Registry - "all types of research studies".

Open Science Framework - "protocols and other research materials".

University of Edinburgh Research Explorer - research output of members of the University.

Some journals accept review protocols for publication.

To find a suitable journal, go to an abstracting and indexing database strong in your subject area, do a title search for "review protocol" in combination with a search term relevant to yours and then use the Refine type options to see the journal titles which appear most frequently in the results.

N.B. Publication fees may accompany publication.



Please contact me if you have any problems or questions when it comes to the literature searching part of your review.

I am also very happy to arrange to speak to individuals or small groups.

Rowena Stewart, Academic Support Librarian (Health in Social Science) (she/her)

picture of Rowena Stewart Acadmeic Support Librarian


CINAHL Plus search tips

For a quick overview of CINAHL Plus databases please see:

CINAHL Plus Tips (pdf)

Session slides

Dissertation: Research (Bachelor of Nursing with Honours) (NUST10059):

Finding Academic Literature [Oct21]


For more help with referencing, please see:


If you decide EndNote is a reference management software tool you want to use, you can download the desktop version of EndNote for your own machine.

Use the University form to get EndNote desktop for free

PRISMA diagram example

Often the presentation of the numbers through the review process is reported as a “PRISMA diagram” > Flow Diagram

For an example of a PRISMA diagram (2009 version) in a published article:

Hartley, S., Raphael, J., Lovell, K., & Berry, K. (2020). Effective nurse–patient relationships in mental health care: A systematic review of interventions to improve the therapeutic alliance. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 102, article number 103490.

DiscoverEd record for International Journal of Nursing Studies

Review management software

For systematic reviews, there are online tools that can help with the screening and reviewing processes.

Covidence provides free account creation for up to 500 records. Instead, make use of the University of Edinburgh's subscription to load your records (more than 500 if that is what you have) for de-duplication* and screening.

Covidence is a web-based tool and reviewers can work on the same set of records.

Covidence’s University of Edinburgh sign-up page

  • register using your University of Edinburgh email address.

Webinar schedule on the Covidence Knowledgebase page - scroll down

More about Covidence

Plus the Covidence Academy for:

  • Guides on key steps in the systematic review process.
  • Step by step video tutorials to get the best out of the Covidence platform.


Rayyan is a freely available systematic review tool from Qatar Computing Research Institute.

Rayyan QCRI


*always do a manual check after any system of automatic de-duplication.