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Literature searching and finding evidence

Introductory guide for School of Health & Psychological Sciences students

Using search fields

Databases let you choose where to search for your terms, giving your search more focus.

The main fields are title, abstract and all fields/all text.

  • The title option will only retrieve results where your search terms appear in the title of a document
  • The abstract option is generally recommended: it will retrieve results where your search terms appear in the abstract (summary)
  • The all fields/all text option will perform a broad search, retrieving results where your search terms appear anywhere within the text.

There may be times when you change the field you are searching in to widen or narrow your search.

Field searching is available via the Advanced Search in EBSCOhost and the Multi Field Search in Ovid.


The Advanced search interface has multiple search boxes each with a corresponding dropdown to search within fields: text, title, author or abstract.

If you perform a search for one concept at a time from your PICO you can add all the terms for that concept and combine them using the OR operator e.g.

The Advanced search interface with OR selected from the operator dropdown. The search is for Children or infants or minors within the abstract.


Adding the * (asterisk symbol) at the end of a word stem will find variants of that word. It is particularly useful for retrieving both the singular and the plural forms of a word in the same search, e.g.:

  • If you enter the term children into a database you will only retrieve results where that exact term appears
  • If you enter child* you will find child, children or childhood
  • Truncation therefore expands the number of results you find.

child followed by an asterisk will find child, children and childhood.

# Truncation is a useful technique but be careful when using it. For example truncating the term family (famil*) will find both the terms family and families BUT ALSO terms such as familiar which are irrelevant and would lead to lots of irrelevant results.

In this case it would be best to enter the terms like this: family OR families.

Alternate spellings

In EBSCOhost:

  •  Use the # for alternate spellings e.g. p#ediatric
  •  Use the ? for unknown characters e.g. wom?n
 In Ovid Online:
  •  Use the ? for alternate spellings e.g. p?ediatric
  •  Use the # for unknown characters e.g. wom#n

paediatric has a question mark where the second letter a should be. This finds paediatric and pediatric both spellings.

Truncation and the Wildcards can also be combined in most databases, e.g.:

paediatric with an question mark where the a second letter should be an an asterisk at the ends finds paediatric, paediatrician, pediatric, and pediatrician, all spellings.


Proximity searching

This can be used for search terms which will be relevant even if they appear in a different order, e.g.:

                                     Health promotion vs promotion of health. behaviour therapy vs therapy for behaviour problems... Deteriorating patients vs patients who are deteriorating.

To do this you need to place a proximity operator in between your terms. The operators differ depending upon which database/platform you are using:

  • EBSCOhost = N
  • Ovid Online = adj    

A small number should be placed after the operator to select how far apart you are happy for your terms to appear within a document, e.g.:

  • health N5 promotion

this will retrieve any studies where the terms health and promotion appear within 5 words of each other, in any order.

Phrase searching

In most databases, typing a phrase such as National Health Service or Parkinsons Disease into the database will search for each individual keyword with the AND operator placed between them, e.g.:

National and Health and Service. Parkinson's and Disease.

You will find the phrase but also results where the terms appear separately, potentially leaving you with irrelevant results.

If you want to restrict your search to only retrieve results containing the exact phrase, place speech marks "  " around your terms, e.g.:

"National Health Service" in speech marks. "Parkinson's Disease" in speech marks.

You do not need to do this when searching in Ovid as this tool does not automatically place AND between your terms.   

Using techniques simultaneously

You can use more than one tool/techniques at the same time, e.g.:

health N5 promot* = health promotion, promotion of health, promoting health, promotional health


behavi#r* N5 therap* = behaviour therapy, behavior therapy, behaviour therapies, behavior therapies, behavioural therapy, behavioral therapy, behavioural therapies, behavioral therapies, therapy for behaviour, therapy for behavior, therapies for behaviour, therapies for behavior, therapy for behavioural, therapy for behavioral, therapies for behavioural, therapies for behavioral, therapy that / which can be used for behaviour… etc.

Search limits

Databases provide options allowing you to limit your search results including by:

  • age group
  • publication date
  • study type
  • publication type
  • language.

These can be useful when applying your inclusion and exclusion criteria.