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
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Keeping a record of your search activity
Good search practice could involve keeping a search diary or document detailing your search activities (Phelps et. al. 2007, pp. 128-149), 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:
- 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.
|Tip: you will be doing a number of searches as your initial search evolves. As your thesis, discussions and argument develops you will search for further evidence and support from the literature. Each search should be included in your search record.|
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.
Have a search framework
Search frameworks are mnemonics which can help you focus your research question. They are also useful in helping you to identify the concepts and terms you will use in your literature search.
PICO is a search framework commonly used in the health sciences to focus clinical questions. As an example, you work in an aged care facility and are interested in whether cranberry juice might help reduce the common occurrence of urinary tract infections. The PICO framework would look like this:
People living in aged care facilities
No cranberry juice (status quo)
Prevention of UTIs
Now that the issue has been broken up to its elements, it is easier to turn it into an answerable research question: “Does cranberry juice help reduce urinary tract infections in people living in aged care facilities?”
Other frameworks may be helpful, depending on your question and your field of interest. PICO can be adapted to PICOT (which adds Time) or PICOS (which adds Study design), or PICOC (adding Context).
For qualitative questions you could use
- SPIDER: Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type
For questions about causes or risk,
- PEO: Population, Exposure, Outcomes
For evaluations of interventions or policies,
- SPICE: Setting, Population or Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation or
- ECLIPSE: Expectation, Client group, Location, Impact, Professionals, SErvice
See the University of Notre Dame Australia’s examples of some of these frameworks.
You can also try some PICO examples in the National Library of Medicine's PubMed training site: Using PICO to frame clinical questions.
TIP: If you use all the elements of your search framework to combine terms, you may find you have narrowed the search too much and will struggle to find relevant studies. Try using only the most critical elements from the mnemonic for concepts to search. For example, in a PICO search, you would sometimes exclude the O (outcome) terms in your search strategy as the outcomes may come from combining the other terms. If the C (comparison) is the status quo, you wouldn't use those terms either. Try to avoid concepts that have vague or broad meanings, such as benefits or health effects.
Ask your Faculty Librarian for help and advice!