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Scientific and Scholarly Writing

Tips and tools for writing scientific and scholarly papers.

How to do a literature search

A literature search is a systematic survey of the research that's been published on your topic. You'll need to:

  • Plan (define what you're looking for and decide where to look);
  • Execute your search;
  • Evaluate what you find; and
  • Revise your search until you're confident that you've found everything that's applicable to your topic.

Ask a librarian if you get stuck at any point in your literature search.

Plan Your Search

What are you looking for?

At this point, you should have your research question and some familiarity with your topic. Write out your research question, isolate your key terms and write out as many synonyms as you can think of for each term. Doing this helps ensure that you are surveying the literature, not just finding relevant articles.


Where are you looking?

You should search in several databases. Again, this helps ensure that you are surveying the literature, not just finding relevant articles. PubMed is a good place to start for most searches. Consider the databases below, as well.


Ovid Medline Screen Shot

Ovid, like PubMed, searches MedLine. Coverage is similar, but not identical, which makes it a reliable way to double check your PubMed search found everything.

Avoid looking through duplicates by using the advanced search option to exclude PubMed results.



Scopus screen shot

Scopus covers a much wider range of subjects than PubMed. It includes life sciences, health sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and the arts and humanities.

Use Scopus if your topic is interdisciplinary.


Having trouble finding relevant resources? Finding the same articles over and over?

  • Try different synonyms for your key terms. Spell out acronyms. Check MeSH or a medical thesaurus. See if the papers you've found have any keywords that can help you describe what you're looking for.
  • Divide your search into parts. Instead of looking for a perfect paper that addresses your whole project, look for several that address different aspects of your paper.
  • If you're searching in PubMed, get a MyNCBI account. It remembers your search history for six months, lets you set up searches alerts so you always know when something new has been published on your subject. It can also help you keep track of your own publications and make grant reporting easier as your career progresses.
  • Follow a good citation. Scopus has a citation mapper, that lets you see the articles that a particular paper cites, as well as the articles that have cited that particular paper. PubMed shows related citations and articles that have cited a particular paper on the right hand column.