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Health Care and Social Work Practice

Course Number: SK432

Subject: Social Work

Table of Contents

1. Literature Review  2. Searching  3. Preliminary Searching  4. Research Question  5. Worksheet


This guide accompanies an in-class workshop about literature review. Go back to it when working on your Social Determinants of Health Research Assignment.

OBJECTIVE: draft a working plan for reviewing the literature around your topic.


1. Literature Review

THE PRODUCT: A literature review is a survey of research about a particular topic.

  • It's specific - focuses on a well-defined research question.
  • It's selective - includes a curated selection of research.
  • It's a synthesis - brings together discussions from across the research.
  • It's a starting point - identifies where your research fits into the picture.
  • It shows accountability - demonstrates how you're tuning-in to others' work and voices responsibly.

Traditional literature review, also called narrative review, can be part of a larger work (e.g. research paper), or a standalone study.

Example: see "Beyond the Family Binary" in The Journal of Marriage and Family (p. 942-946).

Tip! Adapt a synthesis table template to compare studies.


Question: How many sources should a literature review include?


THE PROCESS: There are different ways to review literature. Your methods need to fit your goals for the project at hand. For your assignment, you need to describe your literature review process.

  • Where's the best place to search for your topic?
  • What keywords will get you good results?
  • What search tactics will help you identify relevant studies?


Question: Where do you currently search for peer-reviewed articles?

Question: Where might you search for: (i) 8 peer-reviewed articles versus (ii) 8 of the most recent and/or influential peer-reviewed articles by researchers in your field?


What is a Literature Review?


Why is Process Important? Let's Try Something!

For the next 10 minutes, please follow the 3 steps below individually. Then, we'll review together.

  1. Copy the following search: "housing first" Canada
  2. Paste the search into each of the following tools, and run it.
  3. Answer these 3 questions:

    • How many results did you get?

    • What are the dates for the first 3 results?

    • What journals are the first 3 results from?


2. Searching

a. Article Databases

There is a list of databases relevant to Social Work. Choose databases to search for your topic based on the descriptions.

  • Limit results to peer-reviewed.
  • Discover key articles.
  • Recognize key scholars.
  • Avoid missing important results.
  • Cut out irrelevant results.


Question: what's 1 database I might search for a topic about children experiencing PTSD following a natural disaster?


b. Keywords

What are the major concepts in your topic? What are some synonyms or alternate terms you can use? 

  • Consider the terms typically used in research literature.
  • Google "synonyms for ..."
  • If you have an on-topic article, see what terms get used in the title/abstract.


Major Concept Keywords
Natural disaster

Natural disaster, hurricane, flood, earthquake, tornado, fire


c. Field Searching

  • Use the drop-down beside a search box to find terms in specific areas of results. Codes beside each field tell the database where to search for a term.

Example: ti("adverse childhood experiences") in PsycINFO (all results will have the term in titles).


d. Limits

  • You can limit results to peer-reviewed or scholarly.
  • A date limit is also sometimes useful.


e. Search Tactics

Try using some of the following database search tactics to get better results.

What is the tactic? What does the tactic do? Examples
Boolean AND

Use AND to ensure that all terms appear in every search result.

depression AND home care

Boolean OR

Use OR to ensure that at least one term appears in every search result.

transgender OR LGBTQ OR GLBT

Phrase searching Use β€œquotation marks” to find more than one term in a row.

β€œbrain cancer”

Truncation Use an asterisk* at the end of a term to include multiple endings.


trauma, traumatic, traumatically, traumatize, traumatized, traumatizing

Wildcard Use a question mark ? within a term to search for variations of a single character.


decolonize, decolonise


These are controlled terms from a database thesaurus that are assigned to articles.

Databases have different thesauri, which affects the subjects you use.

MESH.EXACT("Health Services for Transgender Persons") in MEDLINE

(MH "Transgender Persons+") in CINAHL


Question: What is the CINAHL subject for teenager?


3. Preliminary Searching

  • Before brainstorming a research question, it's helpful to learn a bit about your topic. 
    • Do some preliminary database searching: what questions are researchers are asking?
      • From your search results, read just article titles and abstracts where the titles sound interesting.

Example: ab("natural disaster") AND ab(child*) in Social Services Abstracts.



4. Research Question

  • A well-defined research question gives direction to your searching.
  • Frameworks can give guidance about what to include.
  • Pick any elements from the frameworks below that work for your topic.
PICO (for clinical topics) 

Patient, population, or problem - Who is my question about?

Intervention - What is the intervention?

Comparison - Is there a comparison intervention?

Outcome - What is the outcome?

PEO (for qualitative topics)

Population - Who is my question about?

Exposure - What issue am I interested in?

Outcomes - What do I want to examine?

CLIP (for health policy topics)

Client - Who is the service aimed at?

Location - Where is the service sited?

Improvement - What do you want to find out?

Professional - Who is involved in providing the service?


Developing a Research Question


5. Worksheet

Page Owner: Meredith Fischer

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Last Updated: October 2, 2023 10:01am