Here are some steps to follow which will help you work out your search strategy:
1. Consider putting your research question into a search framework, such as PICO
2. From there, identify the 2-4 main concepts you need to search. (You won't need to use every element of the PICO. Often there is no C (Comparison) and the Outcome will come out of the results of your search).
3. Brainstorm keywords and phrases as synonyms for each concept. (This will be an ongoing process as you learn more about your subject and do more reading). Remember to consider the following:
4. Consider phrase searching (usually " ") and truncation symbols (most often *) to make your searching more efficient. (Some databases use different symbols and there are other techniques. Check our Database Help guide for specific instructions).
5. Once you've come up with as many specific terms as you can find, join them with boolean operators:
6. Now consider the limits of your search and apply them. This may include such refinements as date of publication, geographical area, language, type of study. Do your search first, and then limit the final set of results.
Most databases in the sciences have a subject headings list or thesaurus attached. This is a way indexers assign standard labels to articles that are on similar topics. From your point of view, it can make searching much easier because if you miss a synonym for a particular concept, it should be covered by the subject label it has been assigned.
Best practice in searching encourages the use of both keyword searching and thesaurus searching as part of your search strategy.
Each specific database has its own thesaurus, using terms familiar in that discipline. Medline uses MeSH (Medical Subject Headings), CINAHL uses CINAHL headings, and EmCare uses EMTREE. For this reason, searching across multiple databases is not effective with subject headings. If you repeat a search in different databases, you can re-use the same keywords, but you will have to use the appropriate thesaurus terms for that specific database.
A proximity search forces a database to find results where one search term appears within a certain number of words of another search term. The proximity operator varies according to the database.
Examples from an EBSCOhost database:
employability N3 higher education (N=near) This will find results where employability is within 3 words of higher education in any order
employability W3 higher education (W=within) This will find results where employability is within 3 words of higher education in the order in which you entered the search terms
Once you have found a good article, you can use its citations or reference list to find additional resources. There are two ways you can do this:
1. Reference list scanning: You look at an information source's reference list or bibliography - this will lead you to material that is older.
2. Citation searching: You look at who has cited the information source - this will lead you to material that is newer. Some, but not all, databases (including Google Scholar) have a feature where you can see who has cited the resource you're looking at.
Do remember that every article you find using these methods should be subjected to the same evaluative scrutiny as any other information source.
Sometimes you need to find studies that have used specific search methods, representing quantitative research or qualitative research
To find qualitative research:
To find quantitative research:
Question! How can you find qualitative articles when you are studying a very quantitative topic, e.g. dwarf spheroidal galaxies?
Answer: Try to broaden out your search (eg - search for astronomy rather than galaxies), and use a qualitative method term (qualitative OR survey OR interview OR focus) as a line in your search.
Ask your lecturer or a Faculty Librarian for ideas if you are stuck!
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