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Finding medical information and literature

You might think that finding medical information and literature is an easy task, especially in a world where knowledge is literally at our fingertips. However, this sea of information also has a downside - a sense of crowdedness and confusion. You need to gather the desired knowledge and then distill it down to the essential facts.

In addition, you need to know not only where to look for, but also for what and how. You need to orientate yourself and search in the right places and also target your search with laser-like focus in order to avoid trivial matters. Also, citing is a must for any piece of information and let's not forget - finding medical information once is not sufficient. You need to constantly fine tune your knowledge and remain up-to-date.

Tip 1: Don’t trust only one information source

Medical informationIn addition to Google and Wikipedia use also databases and (often electronical) resources of libraries for finding subject information. Use specialized subject databases for searching for journal articles and conference papers.

The complexity and diversity of modern information sources and databases ask for the learner’s and prospective physician’s creativity, reflection and awareness when handling the jungle of information. More important than finding information is filtering reliable information from many similar offers. Like every subject, medicine has its own special information media and particular retrieval strategies to meet the subject-related information needs.

In the so-called “invisible web” or “deep web”, whose information sources are often not found in most standard search engines, important databases may be only available locally within the intranets of the relative universities.


The German database information system DBIS, something like a database of databases, includes also a database list for the medical sciences. You can also find here databases which are freely available.

Free patent databases like DEPATISnet and Espacenet offer access to information not published elsewhere. Fact databases for substance properties and safety data are for example ChemSpider (www.chemspider.com), the German GESTIS-database on hazardous substances and Toxnet.

Tip 2: Orientation before searching

Encyclopedias and other reference works, virtual subject gateways as well as subject-specific sections on library shelfs offer first orientation to get familiar with a topic.

By the way, larger academic libraries often provide consulting to find subject-specific information by subject librarians. In case of needing advice online, you can use a tutorial on handling medical information. One example is the German language tutorial LOTSE, which also contains modules on citing correctly and on avoiding plagiarism.

HLWIKI International is an open, free-to-use global encyclopedia and wiki on health and medical information.



The most important portal to medical information in Germany is offered by the German National Library of Medicine in Cologne, which serves also domains like health, nutrition, environment and agriculture. A first entrance here is the the search portal for medical information Medpilot.

The most important international database in medicine is Medline (PubMed = Public Medline), maintained by the US American National Library of Medicine (NLM). This database is also available for free and includes all medical subject fields - also boundary areas like biology, biochemistry, psychology or sports medicine.

Tip 3: „Bulls*** in, bulls*** out.“

When searching think about search terms you use and their variations and synonyms. Mass information

Poorly chosen search terms bring poor search results. Too general key words lead to too many hits from which often only a fraction is useful; when using too specific key words, important information might not be found.

Tip 4: Save fees

In case you are ask for a login or for your credit card, remember the library to get the full text of a specific journal article!

Potentially the journal is available only in printed form in the library holdings. Or the electronic version you have access in the intranet of your university is only available at another place than the publisher’s website. Linking services or link resolver – as systems managed by libraries to show you the availability of scholarly publications – support finding of full texts.

Tip 5: When finding information think already of its further processing, respectively later publication

Tools for bibliographic reference mangement support saving, sorting and editing your references.

A German knowledge exchange forum for library servcies in the area of reference management is literaturverwaltung.wordpress.com

A good starting point for information about reference management in English language is Wikipedia.


Tip 6: Keeping current

To this, browsing contents of journal issues, reading subject-specific mailing lists, following other researchers via Twitter or reading subject-specific weblogs can be recommended. For example you get continuous and valuable tips on medical subject information through the German weblog Medinfo.

A weblog in English language by a medical researcher is Gobbledygook.

To keep one’s general view, RSS feeds of weblogs and other offers of information can be collected in social feed readers like Netvibes.

Tip 7: Be aware of the following general hints and key competences.

Be prepared for constant change. Know your skills and limits! Tolerate ambiguity and differences. Don‘t give up too early. Be aware that every fact is the result of an act, that information has been created by somebody with a certain purpose.

All this above helps when finding and using subject information.

Never give up

Tip 8: Reflecting on information and on one’s own information behavior

The glut of digital information of all kinds when using search engines and databases requires critical evaluation of the search results. But simultaneously also of the process through which the information has been created. Scholarly peer-reviewed journals publish and accept articles only after evaluation by preferably independent experts.

Thinking about the functions of peer review just as about the evaluation of information and publications includes epistemological issues on scholarly knowledge respectively on the complex of problems concerning scientific truth.

Meaning and use of concepts like publication, author, document, journal, or library has changed in the electronic world of information. Issues in intellectual property and copyright grow in a “cut-and-paste” environment. Citing in the right way is important. Questions of information ethics and politics (plagiarism, ownership, commercial or free access, privacy) become more important. Does there exist a digital divide? Even think of the preservation and long-term stability of information. What will be happening with electronic records or data in 30 or 50 years’ time?

Citation required

In spite of information overload, only a limited part of information is freely available on the Internet. Access to commercial information sources for scholarly research (databases, full texts of journals) is usually subject to a license fee. However, they are often offered within the intranet of universities or companies. Open access to scholarly publications at least for research and educational purposes is desirable. Examples for open access journals can be found at PLOS (Public Library of Science) or via Biomed Central.


  • Tip 1: Don’t trust only one information source

  • Tip 2: Orientation before searching

  • Tip 3: „Bulls*** in, bulls*** out.“

  • Tip 4: Save fees

  • Tip 5: When finding information think already of its further processing, respectively later publication

  • Tip 6: Keeping current

  • Tip 7: Be aware of the following general hints and key competences.

  • Tip 8: Reflecting on information and on one’s own information behavior

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Author: Thomas Hapke


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