Healthcare Associates

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(Embed text amended text) Introduction

This resource will help you to find, evaluate and use high quality information. Developing this skill will not only support you in working towards your academic work but also support how you keep up to date with current evidence.

We are going to use the following research question and explore how you can find the best evidence to justify the claim being made.

Patient satisfaction in healthcare: why is it important and how does it relate to patient characteristics?

To do this we are going to take a series of steps. They look like the following:

  • Planning a literature search
  • Using search tools
  • Evaluating your sources
  • Referencing

Planning your search

What, where and how?

When you are searching for evidence it is important to consider the following three questions:

  1. What am I searching for?

2. Where will I search for it?

3. How am I going to search?

Spending some extra time thinking about the answers to these questions before you start searching will make your search more efficient and help you get to the most relevant information as quickly as possible.

1. What am I searching for?

The first step is preparing to turn your topic or question into a set of terms to search for:

  1. Highlight the key concepts in your topic or research question
  2. Identify synonyms — are there any related concepts or other ways to express the same idea which need considering?
  3. Consider alternative spellings or word endings

Identify the key ideas and ways other people might describe those ideas. You can be general or specific. You could arrange them in a mind map like in the image below.

Mind map of search terms

(Reference to audit removed in first sentence) Activity:

Let’s take our example below and come up with all of the words and phrases that you can that you could use to search for information.

Patient satisfaction in healthcare: why is it important and how does it relate to patient characteristics?

Add your words and phrases to the Menti below and you should be able to see everyone’s contribution. The bigger the word the more frequently it has been input.

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This step is important so do not miss it out as it provides you with a time saves a place to return to should your search not return the results that you require. More on this later.

The traffic lights strategy

Once you have a broad range of search terms then you can begin to narrow them down. You can do this by applying the traffic lights strategy

Consider the terms:

  1. Green — you MUST have — these terms cannot be compromised and are integral to your research
  2. Amber — you would CONSIDER — these terms are negotiable and are more flexible. Sometimes these may include related terms to the core terms that you cannot compromise with
  3. Red — you DO NOT want — these terms are not required for your research and could detract from the focus of your research. If these terms begin to appear in your search results you may choose to EXCLUDE these

Look at the word cloud that you have created and then list the words that you would capture as Green.


These 3 questions are valuable as they help you to refine and fine tune your words (embed mentis)

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In doing this exercise you should see that there are lots of elements to consider before you commence searching. Preparing to search by capturing all the search terms will allow you to easily reverse when a search might not work first time.

2. Using search tools

In this section we look at ‘where’ you will search. You have access to a wide range of information resources which will help you find high quality scholarly sources such as journal articles and e-books. We’ll start by looking at some of these tools before looking at how we can find non-scholarly sources such as government or NHS reports in a targeted way.

Library Search

What is it?

Library Search is a resource for you to search for the articles, books, journals, images etc for your studies held by or subscribed to by The University of Manchester Library.

Why should you use it?

It pulls together many of the Library’s systems and allows you to search across them simultaneously allowing you to quickly see how much information is available on your subject. Its basically the library version of Google but and this is a crucial but all the content on there is high quality academic information. It should be on of your go to places for your coursework.

The University of Manchester Library (The University of Manchester Library)

As part of the University’s response to coronavirus, our Library sites are currently closed. We’re working hard to…

How do I access Library Search?

University of Manchester staff and students can access Library Search through My Manchester or through the Library website. Make sure that if you are going via the Library website to sign in to Library Search to ensure that you can view all resources including those restricted to University staff and students.

Using Library Search

Library Search provides a single interface to discover and locate key journals, books, e-books and other resources for…

You can find more useful tips on using Library Search on our website.

Library Search tips (The University of Manchester Library)

You can search very easily in Library Search. Just type one or more words into the search bar, and click the Search…


Use Library Search on the Library homepage and carry out a quick search using the keywords and phrases from your list online journal articles.

Can you find any evidence specific to community pharmacy?

How would you extend the search criteria to locate community pharmacy specifically?

Subject databases

What is a subject database?

Subject databases are collections of scholarly information, such as journal articles, about a particular subject. They are searchable and often allow you to access the full-text of the sources you find.

Why use a subject database?

When you search a subject database you can be confident that the results you find are relevant to your subject. This is in contrast to search tools like Library Search and Google Scholar which search all subject areas. This means you should find fewer but more focused results. How many results did you find when you searched Google Scholar in the last activity? How many did you actually look at?

Using subject databases has two main advantages:

Subject perspective: if you search in a subject database you know that you will get results written from the perspective of that subject area.

Think — how might a health sciences researcher and a architecture researcher approach the topic of ‘healthy living spaces’?

Subject terminology: some words have different meanings in different subject areas. Searching a subject database is likely to focus on the meaning of words and terminology used in that subject area.

Activity: how might ‘Mercury’ mean different things to researchers in materials science, astronomy and popular culture?

“Mercury” by arbyreed is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Mercury” by polaristest is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; “The show must go on” by PAMaire is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Where can I find subject databases for my subject?

You can find the subject databases for your subject through your Subject Guide. Once you have selected a subject click ‘Databases’ to view the Library’s curated collection of databases for your subject. The ‘Pharmacy’ guide is a good place for many of you to start. Given the nature of your studies and the idea of ‘subject perspective’ mentioned above you might want to access subject databases outside of the health sciences.

Tip — you will find databases covering different aspects, even within the same subject area. Read the database descriptions to pick the right one for the information you are looking for.

Activity: find and access a key database in your subject area from your Subject Guide.

Do a search using the same keywords you previously identified.

You’ll find that different subject databases look a bit different and use different platforms. Most offer the same features and you can find out more on how to use some of the most popular subject databases in these guides:


Introduction to the Ovid platform using PsycInfo

Introduction to the Web of Science platform

Google Advanced Search

What is it?

Google Advanced Search allows you to search Google with more control. It provides more options for combining your search terms in an easy-to-use way.

Why should I use it?

You should use Google Advanced Search when you want to conduct a focused Google search without millions of results!

My favourite feature of Google Advanced Search is its ‘domain searching’. I can combine the term and phrase combinations with a particular domain to really focus my search. Returning to our example, I might want to find NHS guidance on community pharmacy. I would search for the terms ‘community’; ‘pharmacy’; and ‘satisfaction’ in the ‘all these words’ search box. For ‘site or domain’ I add ‘’.

Example advanced Google search

Another useful feature is the option to select ‘file type’. Selecting ‘Adobe Acrobat PDF (.pdf)’ here, when combined with the features mentioned above, often returns reports from the organisation.

How do I access Google Advanced Search?

You can access Google Advanced Search by going to Google and clicking ‘Settings’ in the bottom right corner. From the list select ‘Advanced search’.

Selecting Advanced search

For ease I usually just Google ‘Advanced Search’!

(Reference to audit removed from first sentence) Activity:

What types of non-scholarly source might be useful? These might be reports, news articles, press releases or anything else you won’t find in an academic journal. Identifying the organisations that might produce such sources can help you in your search.

Getting the most out of search tools

Finally we get to the ‘how’. Library Search and most subject databases offer an ‘advanced search’ function allowing us to combine our search terms (Google Advanced Search does too but in a slightly different way).

By combining your terms you can start to locate more relevant information so it is definitely a step worth taking.

The databases use something called ‘Boolean operators’: the ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ that you can see on the search interface.

We use ‘OR’ to combine terms that are of a related concept. Using our example we might search for ‘patient satisfaction OR patient experience customer satisfaction’. This returns results which feature any of those terms.

We use ‘AND’ to combine different concepts together. Using our example we might search for ‘community AND pharmacy’. This returns results which feature both of those terms.

You can find out more about using these functions on our guide to advanced searching.

3. Evaluating your sources


Once you have located information that seems relevant to your purpose then you will will need to evaluate the evidence. You can adopt a questioning approach to inform your judgement on the reliability, relevance and objectivity of the source. You will also find out how to document your evaluations in an ongoing way using an annotated bibliography.

Popular vs scholarly sources of information

Identifying whether a source is popular or scholarly can give you an indication of how authoritative it is. Scholarly literature is usually written by researchers who are experts in the subject area. In order to get their work published there are standards researchers have to adhere to and processes designed to check the quality of a piece of work before publication.

For instance, to get an academic article published the author must first submit a draft to an academic journal, where it will be reviewed by one or more people with similar experience in the field. This process is called peer review and it helps ensure the quality of academic sources.

If a source has been peer reviewed you can be reasonably confident that it is of a good standard. However, this does mean you should take everything it says at face value! Equally, if a source is ‘popular’ it doesn’t mean you can’t use it in your work, you might just want to think carefully about the purpose you are using it for.

A blog post written by a newspaper columnist, for instance, might provide useful evidence for one side of the debate around a particular topic or event. If you are aware of specific limitations in the sources you are using then make that explicit in your analysis so the marker knows that you recognise these limitations.

For example, when including the blog written by a newspaper columnist you could use the source to explore bias and unpack how the author came to hold that point of view.

The table below highlights some further characteristics of popular and scholarly sources:

Popular vs Scholarly sources comparison table. Download this image as a PDF or PowerPoint to read the text in image with a screen reader.

The distinction between popular and scholarly sources of information is not absolute — some sources are more popular, some are more scholarly and some sources contain characteristics from both. The diagram below plots where some common types of source sit on the scale:

Types of ‘popular’ and ‘scholarly’ sources Scholarly vs popular sources displayed as a scale. Download this image as a PDF or PowerPoint to read text in image with a screen reader.

Questioning information sources

If you want to be able to put together strong, critical, academic work and achieve higher marks, it is important to make a habit of asking questions of your source material, rather than taking things at face value.

The following six questions are a great starting point:

  • What?
  • Why?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Where?
  • Who?

You can often find the answer to some of these questions straight away (in an article abstract for example), which can help you decide whether the source in question is relevant to your needs.

Once you know whether the source in question is going to be relevant, you can start to devise further questions which will help you evaluate it.

We will now look at each of these questions in turn.

What… type of source is it?

Identifying what kind of source you have can help you in indicating the source’s quality. This is important if you are using the source to establish an argument. A high quality information source can enhance your argument or research.

Here are some questions that you could ask:

  • What are the main arguments that are contained in the source?
  • What is the content of the source that is relevant to your research?
  • Has the information been verified in any way?

Why… was the source produced?

Just as you should pay close attention to your purpose when searching for information, you should also consider the purpose of each source you come across.

  • Why was the source written?
  • What was the author hoping to achieve?

Different types of source are often written with a different purpose in mind. Let’s return to some of the source types mentioned earlier in this resource:

  • Conference proceedings are written to inform, giving those who couldn’t attend the conference a basic outline of what was discussed.
  • Journal articles are written to inform others of new research in a certain field but they are also designed to persuade the reader of the value of the author’s research and validity of their arguments.
  • Blogs are usually written to entertain readers and often feature the author’s subjective opinion on a certain subject, without necessarily including evidence for those opinions.
  • Newspapers are written to inform readers about the news and current events, however, particular newspapers tend to have a political leaning which influences the way they present information. Some information within them is also to entertain.

When… was it created?

In order to decide whether a source is relevant to your purpose you will need to gather information about when it was created. Different types of information sources are created in different ways, so the exact information you gather may differ depending on what you are looking at. Here’s what you should consider in this regard:

  • When the source was published?
  • When was it last updated?
  • How often is it updated? (especially important for websites)
  • What is the time between any events discussed and the source’s publication?

Often, your academic work will require you to demonstrate your understanding of the current debate surrounding a particular topic so you will want to make sure that the information you use is up to date.

Pro tip: Academic journal articles are often a good place to look for up-to-date research on a particular topic as they take less time to publish than an academic book. Academics will usually use a journal article as a way of sharing their newest research and ideas to see what the reaction is, then they may build on these ideas in a book later on.

Who… wrote or produced the information source?

Finding out more about who wrote a particular source can help you make an assessment of how reliable it is. Consider what the author’s background is — are they well qualified to talk about the subject? Have they written anything else? Some sources, such as academic journal articles, are more likely to make information about the author/s readily available (often this can be found in the article abstract). Other sources like websites may require you to investigate further in order to find this information.

Learning about the author of a source can also give you an indication of how objective it is.

  • Does the author have a bias?
  • Has the author been funded by or affiliated to an organisation?
  • Who is the intended audience and does this affect its relevance?

When searching for sources to use in your academic work you will usually want to find sources which have been produced by experts in the subject area. However, in some cases your assignment brief might specifically ask you to comment on public opinion during a particular time period, in which case newspapers and other primary sources might be helpful.

Where… was the source produced?

You can look at this through a couple of lenses. You might want to look at the geographical location of where the information source was made available. This might be relevant to your research area. You may also want to look at where the source was published and the process that the information went through to be made available.

The second lens is to look towards where the source was published; this can support you in defining the objectivity and reliability of the source. If you are looking at a research journal article then you might want to look if the journal is peer reviewed. Peer review is a publishing process where before research is published the article will be looked at by experts in the discipline. This process is considered by some to enhance the quality of the research.

Questions you could ask are:

  • What is the purpose of the source and does the purpose influence the objectivity?
  • Where is the source published?
  • Was the source peer reviewed?

How… was the information produced?

When you examine how the information was produced you are looking in more detail at the source. You want to know how the author got to their main idea that they are sharing. So you might be asking questions to establish the reliability of the source by looking towards any references that they might have provided to substantiate their ideas.

If the source is a piece of research then look at how sound their methodology is to establish reliability as well as relevance. If the source is not a piece of research then has it been informed by research, can you identify that research and examine the credibility of the original work and then analyse the purpose of the secondary source?

So you may be asking questions like:

  • Does the source provide references that have informed its current form?
  • What methodology was used?

Reliability, objectivity, relevance

While thinking like a detective is a good way to approach evaluating the sources you read, consider how you will have those sources earn their place in informing your opinion. Studying at university you will be expected to make judgements on the information that you give credence to, that you use to inform your thinking and that you go on to cite in your work.

You can use the previously outlined questioning approach to make an evaluation that will lead you to think about the information source from the three following perspectives. Thinking about information sources and their reliability, objectivity and relevance can help you to elaborate on the evaluation that you have made and support you in writing and talking about the information that you have identified.

Reliability: Is the evidence trustworthy? There needs to be a good reason to believe that the information presented is accurate and complete in order for a source to be considered reliable.

Objectivity: Is the evidence objective/neutral? Note that a source doesn’t need to be objective for you to use it in your work. In some cases, you may be seeking sources from a particular perspective to illustrate a point, or provide a counter-argument. However, it is important that you are aware of any bias when using a source.

Relevance: Is the evidence useful/relevant? A source can be reliable, objective and of a generally high quality, but if it’s not relevant to your work then there’s no point in using it.

Is the evidence useful/relevant? A source can be reliable, objective and of a generally high quality, but if it’s not relevant to your work then there’s no point in using it.

This questioning strategy handout cross references the questioning approach with reliability, relevance and objectivity.

Annotated bibliographies

One way to capture your thoughts and words that evaluate a source effectively is by creating an annotated bibliography of everything you have read.

An annotated bibliography keeps all of the important reference data that you need and also your short summary evaluation of each information source.

The advantages to doing this are

  • You keep a record of the material that you read across the depth and breadth of your course.
  • It is easy for you to locate items that you have read and have informed your opinions and ideas.
  • It will help to informs potential future research/project areas of interest.

Below are two examples of annotations that capture the three perspectives we have outlined:

Annotation example 1:

“Provides a discipline specific view of students transitioning to a nursing degree and the feelings that students have experienced. The literature review is thorough. The authors used a thematic analysis qualitative data to build a clear view of the student’s experiences. This is relevant to use with students as it shares the experiences of students at Manchester but this could limit its reliability in terms of generalising and it was funded by a grant from the University of Manchester so may not be fully objective.”

Reference: Pryjmachuk, S., McWilliams, C., Hannity, B., Ellis, J., & Griffiths, J. (2019). Transitioning to university as a nursing student: Thematic analysis of written reflections. Nurse Education Today, 74, 54–60.

Annotation example 2:

“The paper is 12 years old now and while this could compromise its reliability it forms part of a body of work that captures and describes the identities of ‘professional’ staff and not academics that work in higher education and span a range of different professions that work across boundaries. There is a sense that there is very little bias in the research and the body of work. Relevant in terms of the different areas that HE staff circulate the study is explicit that it omits information professionals and library staff.”

Reference: Whitchurch, C. (2008). Shifting Identities and Blurring Boundaries: the Emergence of Third Space Professionals in UK Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly, 62(4), 377–396

If you use reference management software such as EndNote or Mendeley you can easily keep track of your reading an annotations in the notes feature which keeps everything together in your reference library. Take a look at this post which explains how to do this in Mendeley.


Thinking about information in terms of reliability, objectivity and relevance can help you in writing and talking about information sources and progress your evaluation of a source from the questioning approach to making informed judgements. Recording your evaluation of information sources in an ongoing way using an annotated bibliography will support you to see what has informed your thinking over the duration of your course and serve as a reference point to revisit when writing and conducting research.

(Last sentence removed) 4. Referencing

Referencing is really important in your academic work. It is a way of acknowledging the sources and authors you have used in your own work. When you reference consistently it becomes clear which ideas are your own and which have come from the sources you have used.

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