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How to Conduct a Literature Review Using CINAHL: The Basics


Specializes in Gerontological, cardiac, med-surg, peds. Has 16 years experience.

Performing a search of the literature can be a challenging feat for the novice researcher. This tutorial introduces the reader to the basics of a literature search using the CINAHL database. Though not comprehensive, this guide is a good place to start if you need an overview of the basics.

How to Conduct a Literature Review Using CINAHL: The Basics

A literature review is an overview of significant literature conducted on a particular field of study. This systematic process consists of surveying, reading, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing scholarly materials to generate a picture of what is known and not known about a particular issue, area of research or theory, and to determine if the knowledge is ready for use in practice.

The purpose of the literature review is to provide a context for the research, identify gaps in the literature, refine the research problem, verify the significance of the research problem, establish a theoretical framework, and provide a justification for the research study.

The steps of the literature review are as follows:

  1. Focus on a specific topic, problem, or issue.
  2. Identify the variables, key terms, definitions, and terminology.
  3. Conduct the literature search. it is recommended to use at least two recognized electronic databases.
  4. Read/scan the literature and weed out irrelevant resources.
  5. Summarize each article.
  6. Analyze and critique the existing literature on the topic.
  7. Synthesize the scholarly materials.

At the heart of the literature review is the literature search. this tutorial introduces the reader to the basic concepts and features of the search function in the cinahl literature base. this tutorial does not attempt to be comprehensive and cover every single feature of the search function in cinahl, but it is a good place to start.

CINAHL (cumulative index to nursing and allied health literature) provides a wealth of information from the nursing and allied health research database, containing more than 2.2 million records dating back to 1981. it is a comprehensive index of English-language and selected other-language journal articles about nursing, biomedicine, health sciences librarianship, behavioral sciences, consumer healthcare, alternative/ complementary medicine, health management, education, and 17 allied health disciplines. cinahl covers nearly 1000 English-language journals, with full text provided for more than 770 journals.

in addition to journals, access is available for health care books and book chapters, standards of professional practice, nurse practice acts, nursing dissertations, selected conference proceedings, pamphlets, research instruments, critical paths, clinical trials, educational software, and audiovisual materials.

CINAHL is available through the ebsco host interface:

cinahl shot.png

Let's begin by conducting a keyword search from the search screen. for the purposes of this tutorial, we enter the term pressure ulcers into the search field. additional limits that you can apply to your search include peer reviewed, research article, full text, and published date. we choose peer reviewed, research article, and full text. then, hit the search button.

pressure ulcers search.png

Choose the subject heading(s) and subheading(s) that you desire. cinahl headings follow the medical subject headings (mesh) that are used by the national library of medicine. these subject headings assist the researcher to effectively search the database for a specific topic. in this exercise, we choose pressure ulcer. you can further refine your search by choosing explode (+) or major concept. explode (+) retrieves all documents indexed to any of the subject terms, as well as narrower terms. major concept, on the other hand, is limited to only references in which the subject heading is a major point of the article. in this case, we choose explode (+), since it is more complete. then, hit the search database button.

pressure ulcer search database.png

You can see that there are 769 results.

search results pressure ulcers.png

Now, let's combine a search. we use the term palliative care (as a major concept) and perform a new search. choose and or or between the search terms. and limits the search to include all the terms. after checking the boxes in the left side bar that correspond to our search terms, we choose search with and:

search with and.png

There are three articles that combine all the terms.

and 3 results.png

A view of the specific articles:

results three articles.png

You see that it is not difficult to perform a basic literature search in cinahl. as you practice, you will become more adept in ferreting out the literature that you need for your research.

VickyRN, PhD, RN, is a certified nurse educator (NLN) and certified gerontology nurse (ANCC). Her research interests include: the special health and social needs of the vulnerable older adult population; registered nurse staffing and resident outcomes in intermediate care nursing facilities; and, innovations in avoiding institutionalization of frail elderly clients by providing long-term care services and supports in the community. She is a Professor in a large baccalaureate nursing program in North Carolina.

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1 Comment(s)

TheCommuter, BSN, RN

Specializes in Case mgmt., rehab, (CRRN), LTC & psych. Has 15 years experience.

I know this article was written several years ago, but it is relevant to a course in which I'm currently enrolled as part of my MSN degree program (Research Methods in Nursing). This info will be helpful in getting me acclimated to searching databases that contain peer-reviewed research articles.

Thank you!