Discovery tools: involving healthcare students in search/discovery

With the help of Evidencebase at Birmingham City University, in January 2013 Library and Learning Resources carried out a survey of healthcare students to assess their use of search/discovery tools.

Many thanks who the BSc (Hons) Nursing 2nd years  (Professional Values and Evidence Based practice (NUR5065) students in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Faculty of Health who gave up their time to fill out the questionnaire in connection with this research. (This work is also being presented to UKSG by Jo Alcock and Mark Brown as a ‘lightning’ talk.)


We wanted to find out how students responded to the range of services on offer.(for example Summon, CINAHL Full Text, MEDLINE, PYSCHInfo, Library Catalogue, Google or Google Scholar). The questionnaire outlined scenarios based on assignments (both summative and formative), and included a poster PICO excercise and an essay). Each question asked: ‘Where would you start your search?’ and students were given the opportunity to expand on why they had given the answers they did. It was important that our recently implemented discovery tool Summon was  measured alongside other search tools.


It soon became clear that those healthcare students who replied were using different tools depending on the situation (e.g. for example if they are just scoping ideas or if they were specifically looking at the evidence base of medical research.) We came to two main conclusions:

  • Conclusion I: Healthcare students predominantly chose to use specific databases for evidence based clinical research.
  • Conclusion II : Healthcare students tend to stick to the tool they are familiar with for more generic research.  

We also had a range of quantitative data and responses which were fascinating.

Q1. “We’re interested in knowing which resources you would use during research for full text articles”. 


Many respondents selected all the resources indicating a broad variety of resources are being used . Not surprisingly, ‘Journal indexing services’ are clearly recognised as one of key starting points as routes to full-text articles. ‘Library Catalogue’ and ‘Google’ also scored high because up to until this point the student’s information needs (e.g. related to the theoretical basis of nursing) have been still broadly met using key texts from the book stock.

Q2.”You have been given an assignment to write an essay on comfort or dignity in nursing care and you need to find electronic resources as part of your research. Where would you start your search? ” 


When asked where students would start their search for this assignment, the choices in order of popularity were journal indexing services such as CINAHL, Medline or PsycINFO (40%), Google or Google Scholar (23.8%), Summon (20%) and the Library Catalogue (13.8%). Others (2.5%) mentioned specific journals such as Nursing Standard  or Journal of Community nursing. One reason for this maybe that only in the 2nd year do they students start to explore “the why?” that underpins clinical nursing practice and start to develop their curiosity across the field. This places a far greater emphasis on the research literature, and hence the drop off in use of the ‘Library Catalogue’ here, and perhaps also a realization that search/discovery resources like Summon, Google/Google Scholar and CINAHL offer better routes to electronic fulltext.

Q3. “Your group has been given an evidence–based research exercise, to devise a PICO around a specific aspect of care, find research, and present your findings in a group poster presentation. Where would you start”  


When asked where students would start their search for this assignment, the choices in order of popularity were journal indexing services such as CINAHL, Medline or PsycINFO (44%), Google or Google Scholar (22.5%), Summon (18.5%) and the Library Catalogue (3.7%). As in Q2, these results are similar with Google still seen one of the key starting points but also with a sharp fall in starting with the Library Catalogue.  Students needed to look for clinical guidelines (which they find via the web eg via NICE) but this exercise also asked them to undertake a database search, to justify their choice and also to evaluate the findings in the context of the evidence base as a whole. Their responses that reflected on several sources for  evidence based practice search process such as :“Google just to get the basic understanding” and also “indexing services are useful for finding research articles.”


Q4. You need to find full-text articles using clinical research in order to provide to your tutor/mentor with evidence-based research for a case study to support treatment decisions for a patient. Where would you start your search

This scenario was more focused on the practical element of the nursing course, asking students about where they would start their search for evidence-based clinical research. The results for this are very different from the two previous scenarios; the vast majority of students would start this search using services such as CINAHL, Medline or PsycINFO. Here the key idea is that students learn to use Summon and/or databases for scoping ideas and then moving to back specific databases when they have focused their search. Students who selected  ‘Journal indexing services’ said that “You can easily select ‘evidence-based’ for your search results” or “This option will allow me to search the evidence”. 

Student responses: the ability to transfer searching skills

  • Students needed generic searching skills to cope with the mass of information and also appreciated how they could transfer these skills between resources:  “I would use Google first to find out whats out there and then go onto use CINAHL, NICE and Cochrane.” ; or again “I would probably use Summon as a starting point then CINAHL, Medline etc as I feel most confident with using these”. 

Student responses: the need to start a wide search then to narrow down 

  • Students were aware of the need to start off with a broad scope and then narrow down. For example Google was useful in that it helps me to get a ‘feel’ for a subject as a starting point“. One recommended to “Use [Summon]…as a starting point, then either work at narrowing it down, or move to more specific places”, a process which another student would follow elsewhere [CINAHL] : “I would search for the topic on CINAHL and then narrow using other parameters to try and find resources.” 

The need to refine down a relevant result from a mass of results seemed to be similar across the board, no matter what the resource was. Since a single resource didn’t always fit the bill, transferring their searching skills between these key discovery and search resources was also a key expectation.