What do you need to find?

Do you have a question or do you suspect a gap between what is recommended in the research evidence and what is the actual practice in your place of work? 

To identify a solution you need to define the problem you are trying to fix. You will find some hints in this section to help you. Before beginning any information search, you should be absolutely clear about what it is you're looking for – a little planning at the start can save time and effort later in the process. You are unlikely to find useful information unless you know exactly what it is you are looking for. This does not mean knowing the answer; it means knowing the right question.

Use these few basic questions to get started:

  • What is the purpose of your search?
  • How much information do you need?
  • What are the concepts that describe what you are looking for?
  • What words could you use?
  • How would you combine these sets of words or phrases?

For a quick overview, try our interactive Search Tips guide or our short video below, then use the sections below for more in-depth advice.

When you think there might be a gap between practice and the existing evidence, you may want to search the literature and capture some local information to build your case.


The purpose is important as this dictates your approach, how comprehensive your search needs to be and how much information you expect to find. For example, a search to find a quick answer to the meaning of a word is very different to starting a research project. It is also helpful to think about who is going to read your results.

Do you want to:

  • Get a general overview of a topic?
  • Answer a specific question?
  • Identify or confirm a gap in existing research?
  • Confirm whether local practice is based on the best evidence?

Whatever your purpose, you need to plan your search.


Once you have thought about the purpose, you need to plan your search.

This is one of the most important steps in information searching: you have to ask the right question(s) to get the right answer(s). The more careful you are in wording your question, the more likely it is that your search will return results you can use - the number of irrelevant items recovered will be smaller and this means that you'll spend less time sifting though results-lists to find what you need.

Start by breaking your question down into concepts and component parts. There are frameworks that can help you do this. These can look complicated, but remember not every question will have all the components. Each framework is designed to support different types of questions by suggesting ways to break them down into concepts and key terms.

Download a useful handout describing these and other tools including some examples.

In healthcare, you may use PICO analysis at the question stage of the process.

P Patient, problem or population - the person presenting the problem, the problem itself or the population to which the patient belongs.

I (Proposed) Intervention - an action proposed in response to the problem. This may be a drug, a surgical procedure or other form of treatment.

C Comparison (intervention) - the current treatment.

O Outcome - the anticipated result(s) of the proposed intervention.


In service improvement, you may find ECLIPS useful.

E - Expectation : the wanted improvement or innovation or information

C - Client Group : those for whom the service is designed

L - Location : where the service is to be delivered

I - Impact : What change is sought? What would constitute success?

P - Professionals : those involved in delivering or developing the service

S - Service : which service are you looking to develop?


For synthesising qualitative evidence, SPICE may help

S - Setting : the context of the search. The research evidence should reflect the context or the research findings may not be transferable.

P - Perspective : Who are the users, potential users, or stakeholders of the (proposed or existing) service?

I - Intervention : What is being done for the users, potential users, or stakeholders?

C - Comparison : What are the alternatives? An alternative might be to change nothing.

E - Evaluation : What measurement will determine the intervention’s success? What is the result?



After carefully formulating your search question, the next step is to think about the search words you will use to find the information you need.

Which words in your search are "key" to identifying needed information? Identifying these 'key words' will help you retrieve relevant information.

It can be helpful to draw up a table or a list of the key words in your question, together with some alternative terms. The reason for this is that information sources may use different words in their descriptions of the same thing. For exmple, there are differences in spelling between UK and US English so this can help you cut down on search time and make sure you don't miss anything important.


Colour - color

Anaesthesia - anesthesia

Paediatric - pediatric

This is an example of a possible search question and its associated keyword and alternatives table.

Search Question
I need to find evidence supporting the theory that rural isolation is a risk factor in stillbirth and infant death

Keywords Synonyms
Rural Remote, isolated
Stillbirth Newborn, death
Infant Baby

Within each concept you will have a table of a number of key words which describe the concept - you need to use OR to search for these as you will want to find all resources which use any of these terms.

To link your concepts, use AND, as you are looking for resources which include both concepts.

There is more information in the Research section about combining terms and concepts for in-depth database searching.

Whatever source you use (even Google!) there are advantages to using the 'advanced search' option if it is available, as this will often make it easier to include your alternative terms and different concepts. Many sources offer help and guidance for searching and this can include shortcuts and tricks to improve your search.

For example:

  • Truncation: use * to search singular, plural and other versions of a term

nurs* - to find nurse, nurses, nursing

  • Quotation marks: use "" to search a phrase

"social media" - to find only the two words combined

  • Brackets: use () to link concepts

(nurs* AND "social media") - to find all of the above combined

Additional resources