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Pharmacy research project guidance: Doing a systematic literature search

Resources and links to guide you through your research project.


Female student studyingIf you are doing a literature-based project you will need to do a much more thorough and systematic literature search and analysis of the literature. Like a lab-based project you should still be devising a research question to answer by identifying a gap in knowledge. 

You should not just produce a descriptive summary of the literature. Instead you will need to compare results reported in the literature. using the existing studies to answer your research question. Evaluate the literature you find for inclusion and quality. You should aim to add to the knowledge by producing your own graphs, tables or data drawn from the literature to create new interpretations of the knowledge. 

For general guidance, and a list of potential databases to search, see:

What type of literature project are you doing?

Not all literature driven projects are identical and different techniques and styles will be required depending on the topic you are researching, for example you could be carrying out a systematic review, critical review or meta-analysis using the literature. Therefore it is important that you speak with your supervisor at the beginning of the project to identify the style of literature analysis you will be carrying out. See this guide to different types of review from Duke University:

Whatever type of literature-based project you are doing, you may be asked to use many of the approaches and tools used in a systematic review. Take a look at the videos below and at our step-by-step guide for detailed help:

In some cases literature driven projects are similar to journal review articles that bring together and analyse all the research on a particular topic. However it is still a research project it should include:

  • Clear aims and objectives - often key research questions are proposed and answered throughout literature-based projects.
  • Methods - to describe in detail how the literature was searched and analysed, you may need to include detailed search strategies in an appendix as well as giving a summary in the methods section.

The skills of note-making, referencing, structuring and writing explored in the 'Analysing the literature' pages in this guide will all be very relevant to your project. Your analysis of the literature will be woven throughout most chapters of your whole report as opposed to being found in a single literature review/introduction section (as in a lab-based project).

Creating a comprehensive search on PubMed (using field tags)

Most health-related systematic reviews will involve a search on PubMed. But do you know how to create the most effective search strategy to take advantage of the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)? This video created by John Hopkins University explains all the steps involved in ensuring your search is as comprehensive as possible.

Steps to doing a systematic literature search

These steps are largely the same as those for doing a systematic review. Following these will give you a structured approach to your literature search, even if you aren't doing a systematic review.

  1. Start to explore your topic identifying keywords and alternatives you can search with.
  2. Create a protocol thinking about inclusion and exclusion criteria you will use to assess the relevance of each article.
  3. Identify relevant databases for your search by performing scoping searches using your basic keywords. This will help you decide which ones cover your topic.
  4. Look at relevant articles identified by your scoping searches. Read the abstracts and keywords to give you ideas for additional synonyms to add to your search.
  5. Finalise your list of keywords and synonyms. Use these to devise a comprehensive search strategy using search operators and truncation. You may need to adapt your search for each database, depending on the features available. For example, if you want to limit your results to studies in humans you can do this using the 'Species' filter on PubMed. On a Web of Science search across all databases you would need to add 'humans' as a search word.
  6. Once you are happy with your search strategy run the search on each database and collect results into a reference manager. EndNote is recommended for systematic reviews. 
  7. In your reference manager review the articles by looking at the title and abstract. Filter them using your inclusion and exclusion criteria.
  8. Get the full text of the articles which you have judged are relevant and filter them further. You should also be evaluating their quality, as not all will have a sufficiently rigorous methodology to avoid biased results. This should leave you with a small group of relevant articles.
  9. You should now pull together all the findings using textual or statistical methods. Consider using a table to summarise each relevant study. A PRISMA diagram is recommended for recording the results of your searches and filtering of the results.

Consult the systematic review guide for more detail on these steps:

Doing a systematic review

An introduction to planning your systematic review.

You will need to login using your University email address and password to view the videos.

See also our detailed guide to doing a systematic review:

This video covers the first four steps in doing a systematic review, including creating a protocol and searching for literature.

This video covers the fifth and sixth steps in doing a systematic review. It focuses on using Desktop EndNote to manage references and screening the literature.

The final in a series of four videos on systematic reviews which covers writing it up.

Help with doing your systematic literature search

Your librarian and your supervisor can help with the steps listed on this page.

Contact your supervisor with advice on your protocol (Step 2) and pulling together your findings (Step 9). 

Contact your librarian for advice on all other steps, especially selecting relevant databases, constructing your search strategy and using a reference manager:

Your librarian

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Jackie Skinner
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Please contact me if you have a query about literature searching, accessing resources, referencing or using EndNote/Mendeley.

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Quick query in term-time? Come along to my weekly drop-in on Tuesdays 13:00-14:00 in Harry Nursten Room 2-64. I am also usually on the Study Advice and Academic Liaison Desk on the Ground Floor of the Library on Tuesdays 11:00-12:00.