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Health Sciences Literature Searching: Get Started

Students and researchers in the health sciences often conduct comprehensive searches of the literature. The steps in this guide show how this process works.

Find Topic Ideas from:

  • Class discussions or readings
  • Current events and news reports
  • Articles in journals and trade publications
  • Gaps in published research
  • What interests you

Gain broad understanding of your topic 

  • Become more familiar with the topic
  • Define &/or Identify common terms and language
  • Provide context and identify differing perspectives
  • Narrow your focus on subjects within the topic
  • Identify experts &/or theories related to the topic 


If you are looking to find a relationship between terms, you don’t need to use words like “compare” “contrast” or “relationship” in the search. If you do, it implies that you already know the How and Why and that will bias your search.

Ask a BCIT Librarian that liaises with your programme


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Background Questions

Background Questions
Background questions usually address What, When, Where, How, etc. These are the types of questions that health sciences professionals need to ask when getting started in their research process. Some examples of background questions include:

  • What are the adverse effects associated with Celebrex (celecoxib)?
  • What are the best tests to diagnose strep throat?
  • How does ADHD differ from ADD?
  • When is the best time to begin physical therapy after total hip replacement?

On the table below are some useful sources to address background questions:

 Type of Information Sources (see tab on the right for examples) 
 Open Web   (Wikipedia  Textbooks   Article  Databases 


 Background & General   Information X
 Drug Info X X X
 Original   Research     X  
 Point-of-Care X X   X
 Reviews     X  
 Statistics X      

* Use in combination with other sources since the information in Wikipedia has been found to be incomplete


General Info: definitions, certification or degree info, professional practice standards, professional organization info

Drug Info: uses, effectiveness, interactions, adverse reactions, dosage

Original Research: benchmarks, randomized controlled trials, cohort studies

Point-of-Care Info: products and/or services used at moment of care

Reviews: compilation or overview of research evidence

Statistics: population counts, etc.

Full Text of an Article: when you have the citation, enter the article title in the search box

Textbook: course materials

1.    Open Web: 
(online encyclopedias and dictionaries, professional organizations’ sites, universities’ and colleges’ sites, and government sites

 Encyclopaedia,   and Dictionaries:

 The Gale Encyclopedia of Nursing and Allied Health, 2013

 MedlinePlus includes an Encyclopedia and a Tutorial on Understanding Medical Words

 Wikipedia (use with caution). Use it for a very general overview of your topic and for its list of References or Further Readings at the end of the essay.


 Visual Thesaurus -- allows you to try 3 "visual searches" for free; it is subscription based. It creates word maps.

 Wordnik -- online dictionary that integrates visualization tools, social media, etc. Other features: historical popularity of a word, feeds of real-time mention in twitter, etc.

 Professional organizations

 Government   sites


2.    Article Databases: 

  • Health Sciences Databases that BCIT subscribes to -- you will need to Login
  • PubMed Central Open Access is a free full-text database of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM).
  • Google Scholar Open Access is a freely accessible search engine that lets users look for both physical and digital copies of articles. In settings, add BCIT, and it will FIND full-text@BCIT -- articles available via BCIT databases.

Search within these collections for specific eBooks:

  • BC Campus Open Access Canadian content    Almost 200 titles covering subjects from Health, Art, Business & Science, and more.
  • DOAB : Directory of Open Access Books Open Access   the books here have been subjected to independent and external peer review before publication.
  • Ebook Central    Collection of over 120,000 full-text electronic books.
  • EBSCO e-books   Digital full text versions of thousands of books.
  • Springer Publishing   Content from selected journals in the field of healthcare.
  • Theses Canada Portal    The collection contains both microfiche and electronic theses and dissertations that are for personal or academic research purposes.
  • Merck Manual - Consumer Version Open Access Online version of the Merck Manual for patients and caregivers
  • Merck Manual - Professional Version Open Access Enhanced online version of the Merck series of healthcare books for medical professionals, includes treatments, drugs, and dosage regimens
  • NCBI Bookshelf Open Access is a full-text electronic literature resource of books and documents in life sciences and health care at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Supplemental Sources for Evidence

There are two good reasons to search other places (besides library databases) for evidence in a comprehensive search: 

1. Find references to key studies your database searching may have missed by reading (for example): 

  • Newspapers
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Clinical Trial Records
  • Theses and Dissertations
  • Contacting authors directly 

2. Find studies, programs, or reports that aren't published in scientific journals or books by searching for (for example): 

  • Government documents
  • Charity or NGO white papers and other reports
  • Pharmaceutical and other corporate reports
  • Professional Association guidelines or reports

Many of these sources and documents are considered "grey literature". Whether you cite these sources as evidence, or they point you to evidence in the published literature is often based on contextual factors specific to your research. A librarian can help you figure it out. We've made things a bit easier by compiling key sources for grey literature, which you'll find on the left-hand side of this guide. 

Choose Better Search Terms: Identify research concepts and alternative terms (i.e. synonyms)

Example question: what is the effect of yoga on high blood pressure?
The main concepts in your question form the foundation of your search

  1. yoga
  2. high blood pressure

Once you have identified the main concepts in your search question, the next step is to identify synonyms for each of your concepts. 

To cover the range of terminology used in the literature, you must also identify any synonyms or similar keywords for each concept

  1. yoga, stretching, meditation, relaxation
  2. high blood pressure, hypertension

Also consider:

  • word variations -- use truncation * at the end of a word stem (stretch*, meditat*, relax*, hypertens*)
  • phrases -- use " " to keep words together ("yoga practi?e")
  • Different spellings, and hyphenated words -- use a wildcard (practi?e, will search for practice and practise)
  • Acronyms (HBP, HT)

Once you have your list of terms for each concept, you can combine them to create a search strategy.


Another Example for Choosing Better Search Terms:                                                 

Now that you have search terms, let's see how you can replace them for more scientific or medical terms to improve your search.

High School Football Example

The boxes below reveal some better words for your search.

 Beginning Search Terms  Improved Replacement Terms
 high school  teenage, adolescent
 head injuries  brain concussion, head trauma
 concussion  brain concussion
 helmet  head protection

Tricks for finding or "mining" synonyms


Is your search term or concept called anything else? Look it up in an encyclopedia to find out.

For example, in the wikipedia entry for "hypertension", the synonym high blood pressure is quickly identified in the opening sentence. This is true for most wikipedia entries for scientific and medical terminology. It is wikipedia, so exercise caution when using this as a background reading source.

You can also easily find synonyms in other background sources, including your lecture notes, as well as textbooks, other encyclopedias (MedlinePlus) and B.C. and Canadian Government agencies.

Background sources provide you with the kind of contextual information on a topic that always comes in handy when you're searching!

Mine Relevant Articles for "Subject Headings"

Let's say you find a relevant article on a topic. Maybe you have this from your reading list, or the instructor suggested it to you, or you found it on wikipedia's reference list.

To find out how if this article is indexed in controlled vocabulary databases, search if the Library subscribes to the journal here. Once you  open the article's complete record, the subject headings will be listed.