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Veterinary & Animal Medicine

The Process of a Literature Search


1. Articulate a Question

In an IACUC search, you are seeking opportunities to achieve your scientific goal without causing unnecessary pain or distress to animals. You'll articulate specific questions based on the concepts of the three Rs -- reduction, refinement, and replacement -- and the details of your protocol.

2. Plan your Strategy with a Concept Table

Researchers use a concept table to organize all the concepts, keywords, and controlled vocabulary relevant to their search.


Concept Name Concept 1   Concept 2
Search Terms (A OR B) AND (C OR D)

The keywords in your search are words and phrases that you expect to see in the title and abstract of relevant papers. Any concept in your search might be represented by several different keywords. The concepts in your search will depend on your protocol. Each concept can be represented by various keywords and controlled vocabulary terms. You can use our suggested building blocks for IACUC concepts, together with keywords and controlled vocabulary terms for the concepts in your protocol, to plan your search strategy. 

The controlled vocabulary terms in your search are words or phrases drawn from a thesaurus -- not Roget's Thesaurus, but a database-specific list of the terms that indexers use to describe the contents of each article. Different databases use different controlled vocabularies: PubMed and MEDLINE use the thesaurus Medical Subject Headings, or MeSH. AGRICOLA uses the thesaurus NALT. Some databases don't use any thesaurus; you can only search them with keywords. Sometimes people call controlled vocabulary terms "subject headings". 

Your search will use both keywords and controlled vocabulary terms. Controlled vocabulary terms help you retrieve relevant papers even when the author uses terminology you didn't expect. Keywords help you retrieve relevant papers even when the thesaurus doesn't cover the concepts you're interested in.

Your final search statement will include several concepts, each represented by many keywords and controlled vocabulary terms. The synonyms representing one concept will be gathered inside parentheses and connected by the Boolean operator OR. The different parentheses representing all the concepts will be connected by the Boolean operator AND.

3. Apply Database-Specific Syntax

Your search will definitely use Boolean operators, like AND, OR, and NOT. Boolean operators can narrow or expand your search.



Your search might also use other operators for truncation, wildcards, phrases, and proximity.

Trunctation searching uses a symbol to search for a string of characters, no matter how the word ends. You may use truncation to find different word forms; euthan* will retrieve papers with euthanize, euthanized, euthanise, euthanasia, and more.

Wildcard searching uses a symbol to search for a string of characters, no matter which character is in the wildcard position. You may use wildcards to handle alternate spellings; euthani$e will retrieve papers with euthanize and euthanise.

Phrase searching uses quotation marks or hyphens to search for an exact phrase, instead of an a single word, such as "humane endpoint".

Proximity (or adjacency) searching retrieves two strings when they are near each other; humane adj3 endpoint will retrieve papers with "humane endpoint" and with "an endpoint that is humane."

You may combine multiple operatorshumane adj3 endpoint* will retrieve papers with "humane endpoint," "an endpoint that is humane," "humane endpoints," and "endpoints that are humane."

Exactly which operators you can use, and exactly how to use them, will depend on which database you decide to work with. Different databases sometimes use different symbols to represent the same operator, so check the database documentation (or ask a librarian!).

4. Search and Apply Filters

When you run your search in the database, you can apply filters. Many researchers use language filters or date filters. 

Some researchers use a "full-text only" filter -- but as a member of the UMass Medical community, you can depend on the Lamar Soutter Library to get you PDFs of any paper you want to read.

5. Download Citations

Your group might use EndNote, RefWorks, or another reference and PDF manager. Whatever software package you use, you should download your results into your reference manager. 

If you haven't used a citation manager before, the Lamar Soutter Library can help

6. What Happens Next?

The tips on this guide can help you develop your animal use alternatives search -- but you are the only person who can evaluate and synthesize the information you have found.

If you do a thoughtful, well-documented search and discover that there are no better alternatives to the procedure in your protocol, you might think the IACUC search was a waste of time. That's definitely not true! By checking to see if appropriate alternatives are available, you have shown that your plans are in line with best practices in your field.

Whether you adjust your protocol thanks to information from these searches or not, you can help other researchers -- and perhaps even garner more citations -- by addressing animal use alternatives, explicitly, when you publish your work. Use relevant terms in the abstract or title to ensure that other researchers will be able to retrieve your work in their animal use alternatives searches.