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Best Practice for Literature Searching

For the sciences of food and health

The search process

Good searching takes place in three broad stages: planning, searching, and follow up. 

In the planning stage, you line up tools to optimize organization and think about where you can and should search.  You also begin to define your search question and translate it into a search strategy.   

This merges into the search stage, where you will try out your search strategy in different databases and refine, refine, refine!   You will collect records along the way, but you don't need to get the full text of these articles until you start the follow-up stage where you screen the records, first cursorily, then carefully.   

Following this procedure for your searching helps ensure that you are actually catching the research most relevant to your question. 

Steps for a literature review

In the diagram below you can see the four steps you'll go through for a literature review. 

  • First you find, or identify records, using a good search strategy in one or more databases, library discovery services, and search engines.  At the identification stage you capture everything that looks like it has any potential to be useful. 
  • Next you screen those records, and weed out the ones that, on closer look, aren't actually relevant.  You only need to get the full text for those that still look relevant.   
  • The next stage is a close screening of the full text, using critical appraisal techniques to ascertain to what extent the research is useful for your review. 
  • Finally, you'll use the work you've done with critical appraisal to group and synthesize the literature.


*Adapted from:  Moher D, Liberati A, Tetzlaff J, Altman DG, The PRISMA Group (2009). Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses: The PRISMA Statement. PLoS Med 6(7): e1000097. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed1000097.  For more information, visit