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RCN's top tips on how to conduct a literature search

20 Jun 2016

All nursing students have to undertake a literature review for the dissertation module of their degree. Here are a few tips to get you started with the literature search, which will be an important part of your review.

The literature search skills you gain doing your dissertation will be a good basis for your nursing career. It is also a great chance to explore in depth an area of nursing that is of interest to you. 

It is helpful to do some initial literature searches at an early stage to get a feel for your proposed literature review topic. Once you have agreed your literature review question with your supervisor or tutor you will need to undertake a systematic literature search. It is best to plan this in advance. This involves thinking about:

  • Keywords and alternative terms.
  • How you will combine your terms with ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘not’. These are sometimes called Boolean operators.
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria. For example are you searching for research from any country, or do you want to limit your search to Europe or to the UK? How many years back will you look? Are you limiting to material in the English language?
  • Databases you will search. You are likely to search several for your literature review including CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature). The databases you choose will depend on the focus of your question. For example 'Maternity and Infant Care' is useful for topics related to midwifery and early infant care. AMED covers alternative and complementary medicine.  

As you search each database, look for an option to save your search history. This is possible in most databases when you are saving or emailing references. It saves a record of the searches you carried out and how many results they found. This is useful to have when you come to write the chapter in your dissertation about the literature search. You will need to explain how you did the search and the decisions you made. You can also include it as an appendix in your dissertation.

This literature search is likely to be more involved than any searches you have undertaken so far on your university course. Your course may include classes on how to do a literature search and your university library will offer help and support. The librarians can help with questions about the literature search process. They may offer further training and appointments for dissertation students.  

The RCN Library and Archive service supports dissertation students too. Have a look at the online library subject guide Using the Library for your undergraduate dissertation. It signposts to databases and online guides to literature searching. It has details of some great books about doing a literature review and many of them are available to RCN members as e-books. RCN members can borrow eight books from the library too. The RCN Library and Heritage Centre in the RCN's London Headquarters is a good a place to study and work if you are in the area, and offers free literature search training sessions for RCN students.

Page last updated - 15/06/2018