In the first part of this series about dental research, we discussed how important research is to the growth of your practice and to you as a clinician. In this article, we will explore how to do dental research and find what you need.

typing on laptop how to do dental research with Boolean search terms

How to do Dental Research: First Steps

If you belong to any professional organizations, they provide access to one or more peer reviewed journals. If you are affiliated with a university, you often have great access to articles through their library and PubMed. If you do not fall into either category, there are other ways to start.

First ask yourself:

  • What is the specific problem you want to address?
  • Is there a specific type of patient or patient population you want to include?
  • How are you going to use the information?

Keep your focus narrow. You can always do a broader search if you are not able to find the information you want the first go around. The more you can nail down the question you want answered, the better you will be able to design your search.

Using Boolean Search Terms

A key to narrowing the search is with Boolean search terms. If you have never heard of them, you are not alone. These are the key words that search engines use to narrow the focus of your search. There are tutorials available online if you want to dive into it a bit, but the three most common are through using AND, OR, and NOT (using all caps) in your search query.

  • “AND” – searches find all the terms you are searching.
  • For example, you would type into the search bar of Google Scholar: restorations AND ceramic AND implants. The first results displayed will only show articles that contain all three of those words, improving the chances you will get a narrow result. You can search for as many terms as you like, but I keep it to a max of three to not overly limit the results.

  • “OR” – searches find one term or the other in producing results.
  • The search will first display articles that contain one or the other of the search terms, but not necessarily both. For example: restorations OR implants. Your results will be a mix or those addressing restorations and implants, but not necessarily in the same article.

  • “NOT” – eliminates results that contain the specified term.
  • For example: restorations AND preparation design AND veneers NOT crowns. This search would first produce results that contain information on veneer restoration prep designs but not those for crowns.

venn diagram containing Puppy and Kitten, to demonstrate the Boolean search terms AND, OR, NOT, to search for both terms, either term, or just one term

Sources for Your Dental Research

Once you have narrowed your search, limit the type of articles you are reviewing. Using free search engines like Google Scholar ( or PubMed will bring in only clinical articles and keep your results focused on your search question.

Google Scholar is easy to use, and you can find articles that are not necessarily available through your association or university but may be available through other sources. It will also produce results that include white and gray papers in addition to those published in professional journals. There are frequently links to the articles in Google Scholar, but not all of them are free.

You can also cut and paste the article titles into other search engines like PubMed. PubMed maps user's search terms to the medical subject heading (Mesh) and text words in Medline records. I find searching using Mesh terms more difficult to use and time consuming than using Google Scholar, but some people are incredibly good at using both methods.

hands typing on keyboard with search bar and Google Scholar publish date filter overlayed

Tips for Your Best Search

1. Define Your Search

Use the Boolean words to really narrow down and deep dive into the specific information you are looking for. You want your search to be wide enough to ensure you have found all the relevant material, but not so wide you are overwhelmed by the volume of information you receive.

2. Limit the Search Time Span

When doing a literature search, you do not want to end up with articles that are no longer relevant or up to date. Most universities limit literature searches for student papers to five to seven years. Once you complete your search in Google Scholar or PubMed, you can then refine your search to a specific time. The search time limit appears on the left-hand side of the screen when you are searching. This is how you define the timeframe of the articles you review. You can choose one of the options shown, or custom design the period you are interested in searching.

3. Start With the Best Answer to Your Question

Once you find articles, start with those that best address your question, and then move on to those that may provide further insight.

4. Read Thoroughly

Reading only the abstract will not necessarily provide you with the correct information you seek. My wife teaches graduate courses and can always tell which students read the assigned articles in full and those that only read the abstract. She compares an abstract to a movie trailer. The trailer is there to entice you to see the movie, but the content of the actual movie is often quite different and can leave you feeling deceived or disappointed.

Knowing how to do dental research can be tedious but it is also an invaluable part of clinical growth. When you cannot find what you need, these tips provide additional tools you can use to better incorporate new evidence into your practice. In addition to the resources listed above, Spear Education online courses and workshops can answer the questions you have regarding techniques, materials, and practice management. In the next and last article of this series, we will discuss how to evaluate research literature for validity and reliability.

Robert Winter, D.D.S., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.