What is a search strategy?

Searching databases in a consistent, structured manner will save you time. As your searching progresses and your searches are refined, your search history can be extremely useful.  It can also improve the relevancy of results obtained, as you reflect on your keywords and synonyms and how these influence your search results.

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, and keep a record of 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 of 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

Good search practice could involve keeping a search diary or document detailing your search activities, so that you can keep track of effective search terms, or to help others to reproduce your steps and get the same results. 

This record could be a document, table or spreadsheet with:

  • 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). Check out the Refine your search results 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

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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