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Psychology: Designing a search strategy

Library support for the School of Psychology

Introduction - 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 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).  

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. 

Brackets (parentheses): Enclosing search terms in brackets means these terms will be combined first eg (teenager OR adolescent OR youth) AND (wellbeing OR anxiety OR depression)

Phrase searching: You can use double quotation marks to search for two or more words together which form a phrase (eg  “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.    

Some databases have additional search features such as proximity searching, extra character searching etc. See Database keyword search operators quick guide below for more information.

Step 4 - Review your results

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.   

Top Tip - Searching PsycInfo

PsycInfo is set up slightly differently from other databases because of the 'Map Term to Subject Heading' feature. This may look a little confusing at first, but it really is worth finding out how to use PsycInfo properly because it will improve the accuracy of your search results! 

See page on Searching PsycInfo 

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

Library training

Click here to see details of library training courses on searching Psychology databases.