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Psychology: Planning your search strategy

Library support for the School of Psychology

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 Library Search or a bibliographic database:

  • Library Search will search across a number of databases and can be a good way of quickly finding full text articles on a topic; use Advanced Search for finding journal articles. See Library Search (Advanced Search) for search tips.
  • For larger scale literature reviews eg dissertations, theses, systematic reviews etc, you should search the databases relevant to your subject area. 

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!

Before you begin...make sure you understand your research question

Ensure that you have a clear understanding of your research question and its key components. You may want to use a research framework to help structure your question. Some examples are:

  • PICO (medical and healthcare reviews) - Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcomes
  • SPICE (qualitative reviews) – Setting, Perspective, Phenomenon of Interest, Comparison, Evaluation
  • SPIDER (mixed methods reviews) – Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type
  • PCC (scoping reviews) – Population, Concept, Context

Steps to formulating your search strategy

  1. Extract the main concepts from your research question. If you have used a research framework such as PICO, you may want to use this to help you to identify the main concepts. However, depending on your topic, you may not need to search for every component eg you may not have a comparison or you may choose to omit searching for the ‘outcomes’ if you don’t know in advance what the outcomes are.
  2. Bear in mind that the more concepts you search for, the fewer results you will get. You need to search for sufficient concepts to pick up relevant articles, but not so many that you risk missing out on relevant results. It is better to start with fewer concepts and then examine the results. You can always add another concept if you are getting too many irrelevant records.
  3. Once you have decided what concepts you want to search for, you will need to expand your keyword list: use synonyms, related terms, or alternate word forms for each concept. Consider plurals, different spellings, acronyms, or abbreviations that researchers might use. Eg Assess the effectiveness of cognitive behaviour therapy in the treatment of adolescents with eating disorders. The concepts you would search for are cognitive behaviour therapy, adolescents and eating disorders. You can then think of all the terms that could be used to describe each of these concepts. Constructing a table detailing each concept and its associated related terms can be helpful. You will probably come across additional terms as you peruse the literature so you should keep adding these to your table as you go along:
    cognitive behaviour therapy adolescents eating disorders

    cognitive behavioural therapy

    cognitive behavior therapy

    cognitive behavioral therapy








    young person

    young people

    young adults

    eating disorder

    anorexia nervosa




    avoidant restrictive food intake disorder


  4. Examine your keywords to see if you can streamline your search by using search operators such as truncation (for word variations) and word proximity. 
  5. Once you have a list of keywords and phrases, combine them using appropriate Boolean operators (eg AND, OR, NOT) to create search strings. Use AND to combine different concepts, OR to include synonyms or related terms, and NOT to exclude specific terms. Use NOT with caution as you can exclude relevant references eg searching for children NOT adolescents will exclude articles that cover both age groups.
  6. Brackets are used to group related keywords together in a search string; this ensures that the search within brackets is performed first. Eg:

(cognitive behavio* therapy OR cbt) AND (adolescen* OR teen* OR young person OR young people OR young adult*)  AND (eating disorder* OR anorexia nervosa OR bulimia OR orthorexia OR pica OR avoidant restrictive food intake disorder OR arfid )

NB you will need to adapt this initial search string for each database as they have different syntax and search features (see box below).

  1. Test your search strategy in a pilot database (this will usually be PsycInfo for Psychology) and review the results. Evaluate the relevance of the articles and note any additional keywords or subject headings that emerge. Refine and iterate your search strategy accordingly to improve the precision and recall of your search results. If you aren’t getting enough results, you may wish to remove a concept or use broader search terms. If you are getting too many results, you may wish to add a concept or use more specific terms.
  2. Remember formulating an effective search strategy can be time-consuming; it is an iterative, rather than a linear process and you won’t get it right the first time!

Adapting your initial search strategy for different databases

  1. Determine which databases are most appropriate for your research question. Different databases cover various disciplines, so choose the ones most relevant to your topic. See Psychology:Bibliographic Databases for more information on databases relevant to Psychology.
  2. Understand the database: Familiarise yourself with the documentation and search capabilities of the specific database you're working with. Different databases may have variations in syntax, supported operators, and search features so you will have to adapt your initial search string accordingly. Eg
    • Exact phrase matching - positive reinforcementin the Web of Science ; {positive reinforcement} in Scopus
    • Extra character - orthop?edic in Ovid PsycInfo; orthop$edic in the Web of Science 
    • See Database keyword search operators quick guide for more information on the search options available in key databases
  3. Use controlled vocabulary in addition to keyword searching, where available: Many academic databases use controlled vocabularies or subject headings to index articles eg PsycInfo, Medline, Cinahl. Identify relevant controlled vocabulary terms that match your research question. For instance, in PsycInfo, the term cognitive behaviour therapy has the subject heading cognitive behavioral therapy. For more information on searching using subject headings, see Searching PsycInfo.
  4. Find out which fields are being searched in the default 'unqualified' search in each database. Consider restricting your search to specific fields if this is more appropriate for your needs eg title and abstract.

Planning your search strategy template

You may find it helpful to use the following blank Word document template to help plan your search strategy (see the second document for a completed example): 

Tanslating your research question into a search strategy (video)

Short video by USA Medical Librarian and Expert Searcher, Carrie Price. Other videos by Carrie can be found on YouTube

12 common errors in systematic literature searching (video)

Books on literature searching skills

The library has many books to guide you through the process of doing literature reviews/systematic reviews. Here are just a few that you might find useful; use Library Search to find the full range of titles. 

Print books