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Literature Search Basics

What is your question?


  • Write your topic down in the form of a question.
  • Review your question and ask for help from a medical librarian or mentor to ensure that you are on the right track. 

What is your question?

You may start out with a broad topic or multiple research questions. However, in order to be effective in your literature search and get relevant results, you will need to narrow your topic to a single, focused question.

Start by identifying a broad topic. What about that topic interests you? Try writing your topic down as a question. In medicine, we often use a tool called PICO to help in forming a good question. 

  • Patient/Problem: How would you describe your patient? What is the disease or condition you are interested in?
  • Intervention: What treatment or intervention is being delivered? 
  • Comparison: Is there an alternative treatment you are considering? 
  • Outcome: How is the effect measured? What am I hoping to accomplish or improve?


  • Patient: Hepatitis B patients with cancer
  • Intervention: Antiviral therapies
  • Comparison: No therapy
  • Outcome: Prevent reactivation of hepatitis B

Topic stated as a question: "In cancer patients with hepatitis B, how effective is are antiviral therapies in preventing reactivation?"

Do I have a good question?

Once you have a focused question, do a quick search of the literature in PubMed. You must determine if your question is answerable.

  • Is there enough information on your topic to write a comprehensive review? You may need to broaden your search to find more evidence.
  • Is there too much literature on your topic? If so, you may need to narrow your search?
  • Is there a need for your topic? Does your question add to the body of literature or are you repeating the work of others unnecessarily?

Still not sure? Consult with a medical librarian or mentor. They may be able to offer some insight into your topic