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 - concept/mind maps can help tease out themes and keywords;
  • identify keyword synonyms;
  • 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 to search

Different search strategies

Keeping a record of your search activity

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

It is much harder to justify the decisions you made and to remember the results you found in each source after the event.

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. Include:

  • 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

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