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Overview of available resources to support your literature review

What is a literature review?

The literature review provides the background on what is known so far on the issue you have chosen, and suggests areas for future research to fill in gaps.

A literature review is:

  • a synthesis or overview of the research on a particular topic
  • a critical analysis of the existing literature
  • a means to identify gaps in the existing research or areas of further study

A literature review is not:

  • A list of articles
  • An annotated bibliography

There are many different types of reviews. For this project, a narrative or traditional review is an appropriate fit. 

Examples of recent reviews

PICO/PS refresher

Need a refresher on defining a research question using the PICO/PS tool? This short video might help.

Do mothers of low socioeconomic status experience lower rates of preterm birth under midwife led care than under physician led care? [If there isn't many studies specific to preterm birth, I may expand my question to include other neonatal or maternal outcomes as well]

P (Population) I (Intervention or Exposure) C (Comparison) O (Outcome)
Mothers of low socioeconomic Midwife led care Physician led care Lower rates of preterm birth

Possible search terms:





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What are the experiences of Indigenous women who receive midwifery care in Canada?


P (Population) S (Scenario)
Indigenous women in Canada Experiences of receiving midwifery care

Possible search terms:



First Nations



Possible search terms:




How to make your searches better

1. Did you search more than one tool?

Pubmed/Medline is a good place to start, but you may also want to search CINAHL (where appropriate), Google Scholar, or the LibrarySearch to make sure that you have a good sense of what is out there. 

2. Did you include synonyms or alternative spellings (e.g. labor/labour) in your search? 

3.  Did you check to see what terminology the database itself uses to describe its articles?

In CINAHL, these tags or subject headings are called CINAHL headings. In Pubmed/Medline, they are called MeSH. PubMed automatically tries to map your search words to these headings,but you have to deliberately include the terms in other tools.

4.  Remember the asterisk * symbol can help you find different word endings

e.g. midwi*

Warning - It is best not to use the asterisk in PubMed, but it is okay to use in CINAHL, Medline, and LIbrarySearch.

How can I make my search more specific? A lot of the results are not relevant

1. Make sure you use the Boolean operator AND between all of the concepts the articles must talk about. The layout of the advanced search in Medline and CINAHL does this automatically between rows, and TRIP adds AND between the different rows in its PICO search behind the scenes. PubMed allows you to build a search with Boolean in the advanced search screen.

Example from PubMed

2. Limit your search to only those articles that have been specifically labeled with a subject heading. There are a few ways to do this in CINAHL and Medline.

Option 1 - Type the CINAHL heading or MeSH term in the advanced search box, and choose MW Word in Subject Heading or MH Exact Subject Heading from the drop down menu. If you do not select a field (e.g. with formula in the search below), it looks for the terms anywhere in the article record (e.g. the title, author, journal title, subject headings and abstract).

Option 2 - Locate the link to CINAHL headings or MeSH in Medline in the database. Search for your term, determine if there is an appropriate subject heading, check off the box next to the heading, and click search database using the green box on the right hand side of your screen. Remember, there isn’t a subject heading for every idea in the database, especially if it is very new. It is also an American tool, so that impacts the terminology it uses.

You can then add other terms to your search using the advanced search (see the example below).

Or you can search each idea separately, and then combine individual searches in the search history – not necessary, but an option.

Additional resources on searching CINAHL, Medline and PubMed

For tips on searching PubMed, check out the following tutorials

The following video talks about using the subject headings in CINAHL and Medline in your search.

Don't forget to check who they are citing or who is citing them!

The Cited By feature in Google Scholar allows you to see what studies have included a particular article in their reference lists. This is an excellent way to see how the conversation around your topic is unfolding in the literature.

Need help organizing the resources you find?

Mendeley is a free online tool that can help you organize and cite your resources.




Start by creating an account through their website. You can then install additional tools (web importer, reference manager, and Word plug in) to make the most of this resource. Please note - Mendeley just launched a new version of the tool (Reference Manager) in September 2020, so many of the videos and tips you may find online might refer to the previous version.  More resources on this new interface will be added here in the guide as they become available.

If you are just starting to use Mendeley now, you would want to use the new Reference Manager and Mendeley Cite options.

If you already have Mendeley installed on your computer, you can continue to use Mendeley Desktop for now. They won't be updating it as frequently, but they are not discontinuing it yet. 

Strategies to Help You Organize Your Literature Review

It is important to find a way to organize your ideas as you are reading articles. Some people find it helpful to create a synthesis matrix or concept map while they are reading to help them identify major themes and how different authors contribute to the theme.

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Cari Merkley

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