What is a search strategy?

A search strategy is a well thought out approach and plan about how to search for relevant information. Developing a search strategy is extremely important. Using information sources in a consistent, structured manner will save you time. Not only does the strategy provide you with an overall structure for your search, it provides a record of your search history. As your research develops and your search is refined, your search history can be extremely useful.  It can also improve the relevancy of results obtained as you have thought through your keywords and synonyms and how these relate to each other.

To develop a search strategy you will need to:

  • define and write down your research question - what is it that you are going to research?;
  • identify key words, terms and phrases
    • brainstorming your main discussion points to create concept/mind maps can help tease out themes and keywords;
  • identify keyword synonyms, use database Thesauri or Subject Headings;
  • determine a timeframe from your research, if needed;
  • consider what type material you will include and why;
  • identify where you will search for the information

From research question to search strategy

Different search strategies

Literature search cycle

Diagram illustrating the literature search cycle. A circle in quarters.  Top left quarter is identify main concepts with rectangle describing how to do this by identifying
controlled vocabulary terms, synonyms, keywords and spelling. Top right quarter select library resources to search and rectangle describing resources to search 
library catalogue relevant journal articles and other resource. Bottom right corner of circle search resources and in rectangle consider using boolean searching
proximity searching and truncated searching techniques. Bottom left quarter of circle review and refine results. In rectangle evaluate results, rethink keywords and 
create alerts.

Keeping a record of your search activity

A search methodology could ideally include a search diary or document detailing your search so that someone else can reproduce your steps and get the same results. 

Keep a record of your search strategies, the sources searched and search results from each.


  • The names of the sources you search and which provider you accessed them through - eg Medline (Ovid), Web of Science (Thomson Reuters). You should also include any other literature sources you used.
  • The search strategies that you applied when searching different sources (eg Medline, Web of Science) can be added as an appendix to your document. This provides additional detail on:
    • how you searched (keyword and/or subject headings)
    • which search terms you used (which words and phrases)
    • any search techniques you employed (truncation, adjacency, etc)
    • how you combined your search terms (AND/OR).  Watch this video for more tips on Boolean Searching.
  • The number of search results from each source and each strategy used.  This can be the evidence you need to prove a gap in the literature, and confirms the importance of your research question.

A search planner may help you to organise you thoughts prior to conducting your search. If you have any problems with organising your thoughts prior, during and after searching please contact your Library Faculty Team  for individual help.

Further reading

Miller, R. L. & Brewer, J. (2003). The A-Z of Social Research : SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9780857020024

Phelps, R., Fisher, K. & Ellis, A. (2007). Effective literature searching. In Organizing and managing your research (pp. 128-149). : SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781849209540.n7


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