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Education: Designing a search strategy

Library resources for Education

What is a search strategy?

A search strategy is a set of search terms combined in such a way to maximise the number of relevant records retrieved in a database search. 

Designing a search strategy is the first step in conducting an effective review of the literature in your area of interest. If you don't use the correct terms or don't combine them correctly, you will either not get enough relevant results, or you will be overwhelmed with a large number of irrelevant records.

The steps below will guide you through the search strategy process, allowing you to create an effective search strategy that you can use to find relevant journal articles for your topic.  

Step 1. Clarify your search topic

It can be useful to write down your search topic as a question or as a search statement. This can help you identify the key concepts of your search. Here is an example question: 

Discuss the impact of social media on mental health amongst teenagers. 

The key concepts in this example are: 

  • social media 

  • mental health 

  • teenagers 

Step 2. Think of synonyms

You can make your search more effective by thinking of similar words which can be used to express the same concepts. For example, the concept teenager can be expressed in a variety of ways including teen, young person, young adult, adolescents, adolescence etc. Be aware that academic literature sometimes uses technical terms, rather than day-to-day language. Also, it can be useful to consider broader or narrower concepts to search for, e.g. searching for social media, rather than searching for specific examples such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.   

Here are some example keywords for the question above:    

Social MEDIA 

MENTAL HEALTH 

TEENAGERS 

social network  or networking or Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook or Twitter 

wellbeing or anxiety or depression 

adolescents or young people or young adults 

Step 3. Structure your search

The next part of your search strategy is to decide how best to combine your keywords. An effective way to search library catalogues and databases is to use ‘OR’, ‘AND’ or ‘NOT’ (also referred to as Boolean Logic).  

For example:  

Searching for teenager OR adolescent OR youth will find books or articles which include any of these words. 

Searching for wellbeing AND teenagers will find books or articles which cover both concepts. 

Searching for Twitter NOT Facebook will find books or articles which only cover Twitter and which specifically exclude Facebook. However, it is easy to accidentally exclude relevant results, so please use NOT with caution. 

Phrase searching: You can use double quotation marks to search for two or more words together which form a phrase (e.g. “social media”, “cognitive behavioural therapy”). 

Truncation: You can use the asterisk (*) as a truncation command to find versions of your search terms with different endings (e.g. searching for teen* will find books or articles on teen, teens, teenager, teenagers etc.    

Wildcards: You can use a wildcard symbol where you wish to substitute letters e.g. wom?n will ensure you find woman and women.

Proximity searching: You can use proximity operators to ensure words are found within a close range.  

Some databases have additional options and all will use specific symbols. The Database keyword search operators quick guide provides a summary of these features

Step 4. Review your results

Now you can look at the results of your search to see if they look useful. If your results don’t look relevant, you may need to go back to step 2 and consider if there are different words which you can use. To broaden your search you can consider more general words or more synonyms. This will usually retrieve more results. If you're seeing too many results you could use more specific terms or add an additional concept using AND. This will usually retrieve fewer results. 

Even if your results look relevant to the search topic, you should have you may want to consider other requirements. For example, the publication date will tell you whether a book or journal article is up-to-date, or obsolete. Also, Article Search and many databases will offer options to filter your results by other criteria. If available, it can be a good idea to filter your results to include only articles from peer-reviewed journals. This will ensure that general, non-academic sources are excluded.  

It's important not to persist at searching in order to get a specific number of results. Search results always require screening. For example, if you have a set of 100 results, you'll read the titles and if necessary the abstracts to select which you want to read in full. This can mean a set of 100 could result in 50 or 10 articles which are actually of value to your topic.

If your search results are still not what you were hoping for, don’t give up! A successful search will often take several tries, and your subject librarian will also be happy to advise you on how to make your search strategy more effective, including providing guidance on subject specific databases.    

You can select databases using the Key Databases tab on this guide. 

To make sure you don't lose your results, you can consider reference management software or setting up an account with the database so that your search can be saved.

Books on literature search skills

The library has many books to help you with literature searching and designing your search strategy. Here are just a few that you might find useful; search the Library catalogue for the full range of titles. 

E-books
Print books

Further help and training

Your Subject Librarian will work through any or all of the above elements with you. If you are a student or member of staff at Queen's Management School or the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, please contact Norma Menabney via email n.menabney@qub.ac.uk