Key articles – using known articles to build a search

Maybe you already have some relevant articles about your topic? If a few relevant articles is all you need, you can stop reading here. If you want to use your key articles as a starting point to find more, we give you some suggestions on how you can use key articles to build or improve a search.

Which articles are suitable as the starting point to build a search? The articles should match your research question as closely as possible. The articles should preferably also meet the inclusion criteria you defined. For example, if you plan to include only randomized controlled trials, conducted on women, written in English in your search, you should use articles that match these criteria.

If you are a doctoral student or researcher, you probably already know of some key articles on your topic. If you are a student you may have found a few relevant articles, or your supervisor may have suggested articles. If your supervisor gave you articles, beware that you still need to perform literature searches of your own to ensure that you do not miss important articles. You should perform subject searches, that is searches based on subject headings and keywords.

  • Look up the articles in the databases you plan to use and check out how they are indexed, that is what subject headings/controlled terms they are tagged with. Pay attention to different subject headings being used for the same concept. To view the subject headings you need to open the reference in full format. Sometimes you also need to fold out another tab.
  • Check out which terms the authors use for your key concepts in title and abstract. Words from the title and abstract must be used when searching freetext databases, but might also be useful as a complement in databases with subject headings. Pay attention to synonyms and different linguistic forms.
  • Build a search using the subject headings and/or terms from title and abstracts you have identified. Make sure that your known articles are found by the search you made. More information on how you can build up a search is available on webpages about Searching for information.
  • Did you already construct a search for the subject of the articles? In that case, make sure that your key articles are found by this search. If they are not, you probably need to modify the search (given that the articles are included in the database). Maybe you need to add another synonym or subject heading, combined with OR? Maybe you should remove a concept from the search? If you use filters/limitations this might also exclude articles.

If you are a researcher and contact us for a search consultation we will ask you for 3-5 key articles. Now you know how we will use these articles! In systematic literature searching, this is part of the standard procedure and the articles are often referred to as "gold standard articles".

If you are a student and want help in constructing a search strategy for your topic, you are welcome to the library. You are more than welcome to bring a few key articles.

Need a more specific how-to description? In a forthcoming blog post we will show an example. 

Magdalena Svanberg

Librarian who teaches and tutors students at all levels. Also part of the search group at KIB.