A search strategy is a set of search terms combined in such a way to maximise the number of relevant records retrieved in Library Search or a bibliographic database;
Designing a search strategy is the first step in effectively reviewing 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.
This page 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.
Note that designing an effective search strategy can be time-consuming, so make sure you allow enough time for this part of your research!
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:
How is the tourist industry likely to be affected by sea level rise caused by climate change?
The key concepts in this example are:
sea level rise
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 climate change can be expressed in a variety of ways including climate crisis or climate emergency or global warming etc. Be aware that academic literature sometimes uses technical terms, rather than day-to-day language. Also, it can be useful to consider searching for broader or narrower concepts. Here are some example keywords for the question above:
|Tourist industry||Sea level rise||climate change|
|tourism or hospitality industry||rising sea levels or coastal inundation or flooding||climate crisis or climate emergency or global warming|
The next step of your search strategy is to decide how best to combine your keywords. The most effective way to search databases is to use 'OR', 'AND' and 'NOT' (also referred to as Boolean Logic).
Searching for tourist industry OR tourism OR hospitality industry will find books or articles which include any of these words.
Searching for tourist industry AND climate change will find books or articles which cover both concepts.
Searching for tourist industry NOT cruise industry will find books or articles which only cover the tourist industry and which specifically exclude the cruise industry. However, it is easy to accidentally exclude relevant results that contain both terms 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 eg "hospitality industry".
Truncation: You may be able to use the asterisk (*) as a truncation command to find versions of your search terms with different endings eg searching for tour* will find books or articles on tourism, tourist, tourists etc.
Brackets (parentheses): Enclosing search terms in brackets means these terms will be combined first eg (touris* OR "hospitality industry" OR "travel industry") AND ("rising sea level*" OR "coastal inundation" OR flood*) AND ("climate change" OR "climate crisis" OR "climate emergency" OR "global warming")
Some databases have additional search features such as proximity searching, extra character searching etc. See Database keyword search operators quick guide for more information.
Finally, you should have a 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. If you aren't getting enough results, you can search for more general terms or add another keyword with OR. If you are getting too many results, you may want to consider searching for more specific terms or adding another keyword with AND. (The more terms you combine with AND, the fewer results you will get. The more terms you combine with OR, the more results you will get!)
Even if your results look relevant to the search topic, you should have a look if they meet other requirements. For example, the publication date will tell you whether a journal article is up-to-date or obsolete. Also, most 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.
If your search results are still not what you were hoping for, don’t give up! Designing a search strategy is a process and you rarely get it right first time. However, by applying these techniques, you should end up with an effective search strategy that retrieves good quality, academic information on your topic.
Subject Librarians are able to show QUB students and staff undertaking any type of literature search (e.g. literature review, scoping review, systematic review) how to:
At peak periods of demand, Subject Librarians might not be able to deliver all of the above. Please contact your Subject Librarian Carol Dunlop at firstname.lastname@example.org to check availability.
QUB students and staff must provide Subject Librarians with a clear search topic or question, along with a selection of appropriate keywords and synonyms. Students should discuss these with their supervisor before contacting Subject Librarians.
Subject Librarians are unable to do the following for QUB students and staff:
The library has many books to guide you through the process of doing literature reviews. Here are just a few that you might find useful; use Library Search to find the full range of titles.