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Searching the Published Literature Effectively

Searching the Healthcare Databases
(Instructions being updated)

Help with searching the main database providers can be found here.

Step 1: Log in to OpenAthens

Step 2: Choose a database

Tick the database you wish to search. 

To help you choose the most relevant database, hover your mouse over the name of each database for more information. 

You can select more than one database at a time, but if you do this your searching options are then more limited; you won’t be able to use the Thesaurus, and there will be fewer fields and limits available.

Two Types of Searching

There are two main types of searching:

1. Thesaurus/Subject

This searches subject terms that are given to each article (to describe its content). Similar to tags on social media.


2. Text word/Free text

This searches for the word as it appears in the reference, e.g. in the title, abstract, etc.


Pros and Cons of each search type:

  • Thesaurus/Subject

Increases relevance and standardises terminology/spelling

May be incorrectly applied by the indexer


  • Text word/Free text

Good if no thesaurus term

Decreases relevance e.g. surgery could mean an operating theatre, a GP surgery or to have surgery

Step 3: Enter your search terms

Type in your first term and click on Search. This will return documents that have the exact words you entered in their Title or Abstract. Title and Abstract are selected automatically. You can choose different fields to search, such as Author or Journal Name, by clicking on the options. 

[The example search in the images relates to the question "What is the best position for a neonate to be in for mechanical ventilation to be the most effective?"]

When you have your first search result, now is a good time to save your search strategy.

Search tips
  • Exact phrase

Enter phrases in inverted commas to retrieve the exact phrase:  e.g “advance nurse practitioner”  

  • Truncation

To search for words with the same stem, use * as a wild card: manag* will return documents with the words manage, managing, management etc.

Add a number to limit the number of letters replaced by the*: Medic*1 will return documents with the words medic and medics but not medical or medicine.

Use OR where you want either term included in your results: Oestrogen OR Estrogen will return documents with either oestrogen or estrogen or both terms.

Use AND where you want both terms included in your results: Cancer AND Chemotherapy will only return documents with both cancer and chemotherapy.

Use NOT where you want to exclude the second term from your results: Cancer NOT Lung will return all documents with cancer except those that also have lung. Be careful though: a search using NOT is likely to miss relevant documents: in this example, documents that discuss several types of cancer would not be returned if they also mentioned lung cancer.


This one way to combine results using both AND and OR.

e.g. (kidney OR renal) AND dialysis

Step 4: Using the thesaurus/subject headings

Use the thesaurus to find the subject headings used for indexing articles in the database: this helps you find articles that use synonyms for your chosen term. Enter a term and click on Thesaurus.

From the following screen, select the subject heading that best matches your needs.  You are then taken further into the thesaurus, with a structured view of your term’s place in the list:

You can check that you’ve selected an appropriate term by clicking on Scope to see more details, where available (not all of the databases provide scope notes).

Add terms to the thesaurus builder by clicking either Select, Explode or Major:

· Select will search for documents where the subject heading is used as an index term.

· Explode will search for documents where both the subject heading selected and any narrower subject headings are used.

· Major will search only for documents where the subject heading is an important concept.

Subheadings allow you to limit the search to different aspects of the subject heading.

Terms that you have chosen display at the top of the screen. You add them to your search by clicking Search Now.

The Search as Individual Queries button allows you to run separate searches for each term, if you have selected more than one term at a time.

Step 5a: Combining terms (using OR)

As you carry out searches they are added to the search strategy as line numbers. When you have carried out more than one search you can combine the results to create new search rows

OR is used when all the terms mean the same.

Select (tick) all the searches (terms) that you want to combine.

Click OR and then click Combine. 

Step 5b: Combining terms (using AND)

AND is used when all the terms are different.

Select (tick) all the searches (terms) that you want to combine.

Click AND and then click Combine. 

Step 6: Limiting your search

Limits help to narrow your search.

In the search box, type the row number of the search you wish to limit (e.g. row 13 in the example).

Click on the Limits box further down the page on the left.

The available options are grouped into categories: click on a category to see all the limits, and select them by clicking. Click Search to run the search with the limits applied.


TIP: Don't add limits until you have finished combining your rows.  

Step 7: Viewing results

Results of the last search to be completed will be displayed at the bottom of the screen (scroll down).

If full-text is available (i.e. if the Library has a subscription to that journal/that edition), there will be a link at the bottom of the record.

Results can usually be sorted by publication date.

Step 8: Saving results

Select articles you want to save and export by clicking in the box next to a title. Then click on the Add to Saved button at the top or bottom of your results page.

Your saved results show as a new row in your search strategy. You can also find them listed under the Saved Results link at the top of the page.

Step 9: Re-running your search through another database

You can run the search through another database by first ticking all the white lines.

Click on Rerun Searches and tick the database you want. Then click Rerun Selected.

If there is a 0 next to the thesaurus searches, this means this heading is not in this database, so you will need to search again.

Step 10: export, print or e-mail articles

When you have saved your results, you can export them. Tick the search result line you wish to export (you can only export one result line at a time).
Click on Export Options, choose the ‘Short’, ‘Medium’ or, ‘Full’ display format, and then create your export file by clicking on PDF or Word, etc. This then downloads a file which you can save, email or print.

Note: Check the number of records being exported matches the number you want to export (shown in the left circle).


Click on the box above to access the e-learning

How to Search The Literature Effectively


A step-by-step guide to finding information and developing the skills for successful searching.

These modules are designed to help the healthcare workforce (clinical and non-clinical) build confidence to search published literature for articles and evidence relevant to their work, study and research. The modules are short (each taking no more than 20 minutes to complete) and may be ‘dipped into’ for reference, or completed to obtain a certificate. There are seven modules suitable for novice searchers and those wishing to refresh their knowledge.

Building the foundations

  • Module 1. Introduction to searching

  • Module 2. Where do I start searching?

  • Module 3. How do I start to develop a search strategy?

Developing the skills

  • Module 4. Too many results? How to narrow your search

  • Module 5. Too few results? How to broaden your search

  • Module 6. Searching with subject headings

Access the modules here:

or click on the banner at the top of the page.


Animations to help you apply OR/AND in your searches: