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Science Honours: How to search?

Your search strategy

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:

  • scientific terms as well as common terms
  • alternative spellings (US v UK)
  • culturally specific terms
  • abbreviations, acronyms and plurals

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:

  • Taking one concept at a time, connect each term or phrase (synonym) with OR.
  • Then connect these now big groups representing each concept with the AND operator to see where all the concepts overlap.

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.

Using Thesaurus terms as well as keywords

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.

For details on how to to do this, see Advanced Searching in CINAHL and Advanced Searching in Medline.

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.

Proximity Searching

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

Tracking Citations

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.

Citation Databases make this method fun and easy. Have a look in Scopus or Web of Science after you have searched one or two subject databases.

Finding Specific Types of Research

Sometimes you need to find studies that have used specific search methods, representing quantitative research or qualitative research

To find qualitative research:

  • Qualitative research is identifiable by the type of data collected (non-numerical), so consider including "lived experience" OR qualitative OR "grounded theory" as a line in your search.
  • You may need to find qualitative articles that use different methods of qualitative data collection and/or analysis (eg. interview, focus group, case study, ethnography, phenomenology, photo-elicitation, observation). Consider using any of these as keywords in your search.
  • Thesaurus terms are very useful here. In Medline you could use the MeSH term "Qualitative research" OR " Nursing Methodology Research". In CINAHL their subject headings include "Focus Groups", Interviews, "Descriptive Research", "Qualitative Studies".
  • Medline and CINAHL both have a "Clinical Queries" option in the limiters from where you can select Qualitative Studies.

To find quantitative research:

  • Depending on the type of question you are looking for, consider using keywords such as quantitative, survey, validity, variance, correlat* and statistic* or more specific terms such as prevalen*, incidence, severity, frequen*, assess*, prognos* etc.
  • Consider publication types as limiters - such as meta-analyses and systematic review.
  • Thesaurus terms are useful for qualitative research as well. In Medline you might consider terms such as: "Validation Studies as Topic", "Statistical Distributions", "Mathematical Concepts", "Evaluation Studies as Topic" "Investigative Techniques" or "Meta-Analysis as Topic".


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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