Online Literature Searches

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Some Suggestions For Doing Online Literature Searches

Ken Pope

I've received some requests for information about the process of doing online literature searches to help enable people to do their own searches. Here are a few ideas you may find helpful in regard to search terms, search engines, databases, etc. In starting off, I want to emphasize that there is no "one size fits all" approach. There are an almost infinite number of ways to go about searching the literature, and it is important to find one that works for you and that you are comfortable with.

I usually start at or, using their "title search" functions, to see how many, if any, books there are on the topic. If there are a lot of books on the topic, it is likely that there will be a flood of articles, chapters, papers, etc., and a major challenge will be narrowing down the search. If there are none or few books, then the challenge is coming up with as wide a search as possible.

My goal was to end up with no more than about 50-60 items at most, because I couldn't fit more into the body of an email. Many people who requested copies of the lit searches were unable to receive attachments (i.e., my sending the search in the form of a file that is attached to the email), so I needed to send them in the body of an email. In very rare cases I took up to around 110 or 120 items, dividing them into 2 email packets. This may be an issue for you if you don't do your searches from your own computer; you may do searches from, say, a computer at a university or public library and then email the results back to your own computer. You'll need to make sure that the size and form of the email can be accepted by your computer and your email program.

Then I use a search engine like Alta Vista to take a quick look for web sites that might be relevant. Glancing at the first few (maybe up to 10 in some cases) gives me an idea of how people are writing about the topic, of terms to use when searching, etc. They also give me an idea of whether there are specific web addresses worth exploring to find additional information. Although I like Google ( and Alta Vista ( , mainly because I've gotten used to them and know their quirks and biases, there are many search engines (as well as meta-crawlers, etc.) out there. To search for information about the U.S. federal or state governments (e.g., legislation, government programs, government agencies and publications), FirstGov ( tends to be very good. Near the end of this message I'll recommend a web site that presents data on the various search engines as well as on other subjects that people who do searches will find helpful.

I use all sorts of databases to find abstracts, including the "standards" such as medline, medlineplus, psycinfo, mental health abstracts, etc. In part it depends on where I am. I'm in full-time solo practice, so I have no institutional support to provide me with lit search resources. My best searches are done when I can go to a university library. They can afford a wider range of elaborate and comprehensive databases than I, as an individual, can. Unfortunately, there is none in the town where I live so I have to travel a bit, which my schedule doesn't often permit (when I factor in a 30-40 minute drive each way, parking, etc., its hard to fit into my client schedule). One great benefit (in addition to the access to large databases) is the librarians. I've been to quite a few institutions to do searches, and without exception the librarians have been wonderfully kind, knowledgeable, and helpful. Particularly when starting out and wondering how to do something complex, it was invaluable to be able to look up and ask "Would you please tell me how I can. . .?" For those of you just starting out and looking for someone to help you as you conduct your first searches, I'd recommend trying a university library. (If there is no university library anywhere near you, it is worth checking with the public library's reference desk to see what electronic databases they have access to.)

If you go to university, health care center, or other institutional libraries to do searches, remember to bring some floppy disks so that you can download your searches onto the disks and take them to your office or home computer, although in some instances you may be able to email your searches from the institution's computer to your own computer.

If I need as wide a search as possible, then I try to think of as many synonyms for each search term as I can (usually my Alta Vista or Google search will help suggest possible terms), and I string them together with "or" connectors. If I need the narrowest possible search, I usually ask only for books, chapters, articles, papers, etc., in which the topic is mentioned in the title AND that have been published this year.

How do you string all of these things (search terms, "and"s, "or"s, dates, titles, and so on) together? Most of the engines, unless they are menu driven (giving you a different blank for each term and letting you use multiple choice options to connect them), use either Boolean logic or Natural Language specifiers and connectors. If you've had courses in Boolean logic (I took courses in symbolic logic in college which covered this stuff), you'll already know the approach. If you haven't, you can learn it from a reference librarian or from the "help" menu available on search engines or from a course in internet database searching or from the following web site.

The web site I'd recommend to cover material from the most basic beginning to the highly advanced is To learn the beginnings of how to string together search terms, look for the section "search engine math" under the larger section on "web searching tips." To look at the different kinds of search engines, go to the section on "Search Engine Listings." To see the search engines compared and contrasted, go to the section on "Reviews, Ratings, and Tests." (Or you could go to the section "First Time Visit?").

These and many other sections of this site are free (i.e., not restricted). I also subscribe to their twice-monthly electronic newsletter (which provides access to some restricted parts of the site), but if you're only going to do a search every once in a while, I wouldn't recommend this option.

Hope this is helpful.



Bobby AAA
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