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Literature searching essentials

Literature searching essentials

01 June 2023

Christine Keen, Adviser in Health Research Information, RDS East Midlands

A crucial part of any research funding application is conducting a thorough literature search of your topic area. This can seem like a daunting task, but don’t worry – help is at hand! The NIHR Research Design Service has recently created a collection of literature-searching resources to support you. Here I’ll give a run-through of the contents and how they can help you with your research.

Planning and conducting a literature search

It's important to plan your search strategy before you start searching and also to keep a record of where and what you have searched for.  Our literature search guide will help you organise your search. Having a search strategy will also help you to refine your idea into a research question. One tool that helps focus the search and the research question is the PICO research tool. PICO focuses on Population, Intervention, Comparison and Outcomes in quantitative studies versus Population,  Interest, and the Context for qualitative studies. Involving public contributors in your literature review can also be very helpful as they can help decide the right question and extract what the literature is saying in relation to their own experiences.

Finding published research

Using information gathered through literature searches is important for many parts of your application, but it's critical at the beginning, to establish whether the idea is novel. Our published research guide lists databases and internet resources you can search to evidence what has been done so far and why your research question still needs to be answered. The guide provides a brief summary of what you can expect to find in each of the databases and how they can be accessed.

Finding 'grey literature'

Grey literature is a term used for articles that have not been formally published.  Information produced outside of traditional publishing and distribution channels can be reports, policy documents, government documents (white and green papers), dissertations, blogs, podcasts, etc. Grey literature can help you find a more diverse range of views and research that has negative results, as these are less likely to be published. Our grey literature guide describes different databases for this hard-to-find material. However, please note that grey literature isn't peer-reviewed and may vary in quality.

Finding current research

The next step is to ensure that a research study examining your research idea isn't already underway or recently completed.  The sources listed in our current research guide cover listings of current, ongoing, or recently completed work.

Finding guidance and policy

Once you've established that your idea is novel, the task is to evidence that it is a priority topic for funding. Our priorities guide lists some essential links to National NICE guidelines and James Lind Alliance and other sources to help establish your research idea has been flagged as being important to the NHS or social care.

Patent searching

When you are developing your research idea, you may want to use existing technology to help with your project, or it may involve the creation of a novel medical device, scale, software, etc. If this is the case, you will either need permission from the owner of the relevant intellectual property and any of their 'terms of use', or certainty that a current patent doesn't already exist for what you have in mind. Our patent guide shows you where to check for existing patents with a link to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), which is responsible for IP in the UK, including patents, designs, trademarks, and copyright. There are also suggested online tutorials that start with the basics of what a patent is, progressing on to how to filter your searches on GOV.UK.

You can search our collection of literature-searching resources on RDSresources using the filter tags 'Literature searching' and 'Collection'. Remember that if you need support with improving or refreshing your literature-searching skills you can try out our training videos and also contact your local RDS for advice.

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