Searching the Literature for Animal Testing Alternatives : a Tutorial

Tutorial for researching alternatives to animal research

Step 5 : Evaluate Your Search - Red Flags

AWIC, or the Animal Welfare Information Center of the USDA, identifies these points of concern for search evaluation in their very useful Conducting Literature Searches : Addressing the Search for Alternatives brochure:

  • Only 1 database was searched 
  • Terms used were only for painful aspects
  • The term “alternative” was used alone
  • Keywords listed were not relevant to the protocol 
  • Keywords and concepts were linked in an incorrect manner (ie, poor Boolean logic)
  • Inadequate time period was searched (less than 5 years) 

Use the following suggestions to avoid raising these red flags and help to make your search more effective.

Too Many! Too Few! Did You Find Enough?

The main problem that literature searchers encounter is finding either too much or too little information. 

Did you find fewer citations than you expected or needed? Consider these potential issues:

  • Is the database you are searching the best for your research?
    • You may need to select different or additional ones.
  • Is your search query too long?
    • Every word you include narrows your search results because the database will try to find all of them in every record returned. Try shortening your search query.
  • Do you have multiple words that mean the same thing in your search?
    • Frequently, an abstract or article will use one synonym but not another, meaning that if you include both in the required search terms, you will cancel out finding the article. Overcome this by using Boolean OR. See the guide on Boolean Searching for more information.
  • Is your search query misspelled?
    • This is a common and easily overlooked cause of poor search results.
  • Do you have a search limiter selected that you do not want?
    • Try resetting the search. Do not use the back button to get to the main search screen of the database.
  • Are you using Boolean terms correctly?
    • If you are using Boolean AND or NOT without using parentheses, you may be telling the database to limit your search more than you would like. See the guide on Boolean Searching for more information.

Did you find too many citations?

  • Your search query is probably too broad.
    • Try adding a more specific term to your search to narrow your search terms.
    • Consider using Boolean OR with parentheses to broaden your search and allow you to search for synonyms simultaneously.  See the guide on Boolean Searching for more information.

Did You Look Far Enough?

Searchers also need to be careful to include a broad enough range of time and possible sources in their overall literature search.

Are you searching an adequate time period?

  • This sort of literature search should include a broad period of time, with AT LEAST five years included.
    • In addition to the available online databases, The Health Sciences Library and other libraries on campus have print indexes if you would like to search earlier information.

Did you search in enough sources?

  • As the literature on animal research methods falls into so many different interdisciplinary areas, it is necessary to search more than one database as no one database contains all of the information available on any given topic.
    • Your search should include at least one research database and at least one Animal Alternatives Database or Resource. 

Are Your Results Useful?

Searchers must consider the quality of results that they find to be sure that they are adequate. Are you finding relevant results? If your results do not seem to match your search question, consider these potential issues:

Are your keyword terms related to your specific search protocol?

  • While this seems like an obvious question to ask, it is still very important. Make sure that the words you use to search are relevant to your research - otherwise you will end up with results that are not useful to you.

Are your animal alternatives keywords useful? 

  • The NIH Library suggests that only using "terms for painful aspects" and using the term "alternative" without other synonyms could be a red flag for IACUCs and other investigatory bodies.

Are your keyword terms appropriate for the databases you searched?

  • Databases often want searches to be entered in very specific formats and vocabulary. For instance, PubMed MEDLINE uses the term "neoplasm" instead of "cancer" in [MeSH] subject searching, which is desirable to use because it is consistent across articles, unlike author keyword searching. See the Help and Tutorial sections of each database that you search for assistance on how to deal with this issue.

Did you format your search query appropriately for the specific database?

  • Databases may return odd results because they are confused by the search query. Remember to capitalize Boolean search connectors (AND, OR, NOT) if necessary and take advantage of other search features in the particular database. See the Help and Tutorial sections of each database that you search for assistance.
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