Category Archives: Notes from the library

Notes from the Library…Searching a Literature Database

What is a structured search?

A structured search is a systematic approach to finding references in a literature database using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT), keywords and controlled vocabulary terms, such Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). The goal of a structured search strategy is to balance recall and relevance (sensitivity and specificity).

How do I create a structured search?

The key to creating a good structured search is doing a little work before you go to a database.

Step 1: Develop a focused question

Like all research, a good search begins with a good question. Health professional students are taught to use the acronym PICO to construct clinical questions, where ‘P’ stands for patient or problem, ‘I’ for intervention, exposure or prognostic factor, ‘C’ for comparison, and ‘O’ for outcome. The idea is to create a well-defined question with multiple concepts, which helps you build a search strategy and evaluate the relevance of your search results. You may need to modify your question once you conduct a few searches.

Example: How do genetic variants in the vitamin D pathway affect breast cancer risk?

Step 2: Identify the key concepts of your questions.

Break down your question into its components. You can use the PICO acronym, or simply think: who, what, when, where, how.

Example: How do genetic variants in the vitamin D pathway affect breast cancer risk?

Breast cancer (concept 1)

Vitamin D (concept 2)

Genetic variants (concept 3)

Step 3: Choose keywords and standardized (controlled vocabulary) terms to describe each concept.

The goal of this step is to think of different ways to describe each concept. Keywords are natural language, the terms you use when discussing the concept with a colleague; consider acronyms, abbreviations and close synonyms. Standardized terms are from a controlled vocabulary, such as MeSH in PubMed; not all databases have a controlled vocabulary. The inclusion of multiple keywords and standardized terms ensures that you do not miss relevant articles on your topic, regardless of how an author or indexer described the topic.

Example: How do genetic variants in the vitamin D pathway affect breast cancer risk?

Breast cancer (concept 1): Breast neoplasms, mammary carcinoma…

Vitamin D (concept 2): Calcitriol, 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol…

Step 4: Using Boolean operators, search each concept separately then combine.

Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) are used to combine words and phrases in a search strategy. Use ‘OR’ to combine all keywords and standardized terms for one concept and run this search in a database. Once you have searched each concept separately, then combine different concepts using ‘AND’. Searching each concept separately allows you to identify any problems with particular terms before you build a complicated search, and gives you the flexibility of combining your concepts in different ways.

Example: (Breast cancer OR Breast neoplasm OR Mammary Carcinoma) AND (Vitamin D OR Calcitriol OR 1,25-Dihydroxycholecalciferol) AND (Genetic variant OR Polymorphism OR Gene frequency)

AND Heart disease AND hypertension Articles containing BOTH heart disease and hypertension   boolean_and
OR Heart disease OR Hypertension Articles containing EITHER heart disease, hypertension, or both  boolean_or
NOT Heart disease NOT hypertension Articles containing ONLY heart disease, not hypertension  boolean_not

Step 5: Use filters to limit results.

Most databases have filters, such as date, language and publication type, that allow you to further narrow your results. Be judicious when using filters. If you have too many irrelevant results, then you need to modify your search, not apply more filters.

This sounds complicated and time-consuming, do I really need to construct a structured search each time I need to find articles?

Not necessarily. If you just need a few good articles, then you can enter a couple terms in a database and scan the results. However, if you are doing a literature search for your dissertation, qualifiers, or grant proposal, then it is a good idea to do a structured search. This strategy may require an initial investment of time, but it will (hopefully) save you the frustration of scrolling through hundreds of irrelevant results, or missing an important article. Of course, I am always available to help you construct a search strategy.

Notes from the Library… (October 2015)

Whether orientation is a recent or distant memory, here are a few tips on the resources and spaces available at the library:

Finding Books at Tufts: We have a lot of books, both in print and electronically. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to find these books. When you want to know whether or not the library has a specific book, search the library catalog ( by title, author or course reserves (a few books are on reserve for Sackler courses). If a book is located at another Tufts library, then you can request that it be delivered to the Hirsh Health Sciences Library by clicking the ‘Request Item’ button at the top of the catalog record. You will be notified when the book is ready for you retrieve at our library. While e-books will appear in the library catalog, you can also browse our e-book collections (

Book not Available at Tufts? Search WorldCat (, a global catalog of library collections. You can request that books available at Boston Library Consortium libraries be delivered to our library at no charge. For more information on requesting books, book chapters and journal articles from non-Tufts libraries, see:

Study Rooms: Study rooms are located on the 5th, 6th and 7th floors of the Sackler building. Study rooms on the 5th floor may be reserved for groups of two or more people. Study rooms on the other two floors are available on a first come, first served basis with precedence given to groups. To make a reservation for the 5th floor study room, see:

Computers: Public computers are located on the 4th and 5th floors of Sackler. In addition, two computer labs, also located on the 5th floor, are available for use when not occupied by a class. Laptops, both Macs and PCs, are available for check out at the Library Service Desk. Software installed on library computers includes: Adobe products (Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, etc.), MatLab, SAS, SPSS and Stata. Complete list of software on library computers:

Software: Visit the Tufts Technology Services Help Desk on the 5th floor of Sackler to get software installed on your personal computer. Complete list of available software: Unfortunately, Adobe software is not available for installation on students’ personal computers, and Adobe only offers a student discount on their Creative Cloud Complete package. Online library of video tutorials that teach software, creative and business skills, including beginner to advanced Illustrator, R, Tableau, SPSS. Tufts Technology Services recently acquired a license that allows Tufts students, faculty and staff unlimited access to Free apps for iOS and Android devices allow you to watch videos on your mobile device. To access, go to:, click the ‘Login’ button and sign in with your Tufts username and password.

-Laura Pavlech

Notes from the Library… (August 2015)

lauraPavlech-253x300Hello! I am the new liaison librarian to the Sackler School, Laura Pavlech. I joined Hirsh Health Sciences Library in May of this year. I am excited to return to Tufts, where I attended veterinary school, and work with the health sciences students, faculty and staff. You may be wondering what a librarian can do for you. I think of my job as helping people find, organize and use the resources available to them at Tufts and beyond… here are a few examples of the types of questions that I can answer:

  • Find journal articles: Whether you are investigating a new topic or preparing to write the introduction section of your thesis, I can help you choose which databases to use, and construct a good search strategy.
  • Find protocols & methods: Have you been asked to use a technique about which you know nothing? I can show you where to find books, journals and videos devoted to in-depth descriptions of scientific protocols and methods.
  • Find chemical & drug information: Want to find property data, similar molecules or patents for a chemical compound? I can direct you to the best resources for chemical and drug information, and teach you how to search these resources.
  • Find data & health statistics: Do you need to find a data set to utilize in your research, or health statistics to support a grant proposal? I can assist you in locating publicly available data sets and health statistics.
  • Organize your citations: Learn how to use a citation manager, such as EndNote or RefWorks, to store references and journal articles, and insert formatted citations into Word documents.
  • Establish your research identity: I can show you how to find journal Impact Factors, citation counts, and other metrics that can help you demonstrate the impact of your work to funders and prospective employers.
  • Maintain compliance with funder public access policies: What are public access policies, does my funder have a public access policy, and when I publish, what do I need to do to comply with these policies?

There is a lot of information out there and more is being created every day. Part of becoming a good scientist is learning how to find and use the information that you need in an efficient and effective manner. I (hopefully!) can help you do that:

  • Office hours: Beginning August 31st, I will have weekly office hours for which you can either schedule an appointment or just drop by. My office is located on 6th floor of the Sackler building.
  • Scheduled consultations: You can contact me via phone (617-636-0385) or email ( to schedule an appointment at a time that is convenient for you.
  • Research guides: The library has several research guides that can direct you to the resources that you need, and may also help you answer some of the questions I described above. Check out the Biomedical Sciences Research Guide (, or the complete list of guides (