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Search Strategy for Researchers: Frame your search strategy

Frame your search strategy

Search Strategy Process

search strategy process

Get Started with Search

There are many different ways to search for information in databases.

One way to get you started with searching is to:

  1. Identify main concepts for your topic. Conduct a search using keywords. Identify relevant results.  
  2. Figure out the terms that the database uses for your concepts by seeing the subject headings or MeSH terms found in records of relevant results and also listed under Refine Results (EBSCO databases).
  3. Conduct a second search using subject headings. Searching with subject headings can retrieve even more relevant results.

If a database has a thesaurus (CINAHL has CINAHL Headings; Medline has MeSH), you can browse it for subject headings, see the scope note or definition of a subject heading, and see related terms that you might use. 

Search Tips:

  • Keep track of the terms you've searched to avoid repeating searches.
  • Consider using a citation managers to export citations of relevant results along the way. 

Key Terms & Concepts

Start developing a search strategy by identifying the key words and concepts within your research question. 

For example: What strategies can healthcare workers use to communicate effectively with clients with a hearing disability?

Treat each component as a separate concept (there are usually between 2-4 concepts).

For each concept list the key words derived from your research question, as well as any other relevant terms or synonyms that you have found in your preliminary searches. Also consider singular and plural forms of words, variant spellings, acronyms and relevant index terms (subject headings).

While the term strategies has been identified as a concept in this example, there are likely to be relevant articles that do not include terms such as strategies. As such, this concept would not be included in the final search strategy.

Search concept 1 Search concept 2 Search concept 3 Search concept 4
strategies healthcare workers communication hearing disability
methods healthcare professionals communicating hearing impairment
health personnel interpersonal communication hearing impaired
health professional communication skills deaf


sample search strategy

The above search strategy in a nested format (for use in a single search box) would look like:

("healthcare worker*" OR "health care worker*" OR "healthcare professional*" OR "health professional*" OR "health personnel") AND (communicat* OR "interpersonal communication" OR "communication skill*") AND ("hearing disabilit*" OR "hearing impair*" OR deaf* OR "hard of hearing" OR "hearing loss")

Boolean Search

Boolean Operators






Combine search terms with OR / AND / NOT (Boolean operators)


  • Link keywords related to a single concept with OR
  • Linking with OR broadens a search (increases the number of results) by searching for any of the alternative keywords

Example: hearing impaired OR deaf


  • Link different concepts with AND
  • Linking with AND narrows a search (reduces the number of results) by retrieving only those records that include all of your specified keywords

Example: hearing impaired AND communication


  • using NOT narrows a search by excluding certain search terms
  • Most searches do not require the use of the NOT operator

Example: hearing impaired NOT deaf will retrieve all results that include the words hearing impaired but don’t contain the word deaf.

Phrase Search

Searching for phrases

Use quotes to keep word order when searching for phrases

For phrase searching, place two or more words in "inverted commas" or "quote marks".

Example:   “hearing impaired”

In some databases, words may be searched separately if the quote marks are not used. In other databases, word order may be maintained without the need for quote marks.

See the Database operators guide for details on phrase searching in key databases, or check the Help link in any database.

Phrase Searching

Image courtesy Texas library

Truncation & Wild Cards

Truncation Search

Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.

  • To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.
  • The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.
  • Examples:
    child* = child, childs, children, childrens, childhood
    genetic* = genetic, genetics, genetically
  • Truncation symbols may vary by database; common symbols include: *, !, ?, or #

Use symbols to retrieve word variations

Truncation - The truncation symbol is commonly an asterisk * and is added at the end of a word.

  • The asterisk applied to the root of a word captures other endings to that root word making it useful for retrieving singular, plural and other variations of a keyword.

Example:  strateg* will retrieve strategy, strategies, strategic, strategize etc

Note: If you don't want to retrieve all possible variations, an easy alternative is to utilise the OR operator instead e.g. strategy OR strategies.

Wildcard  - Wildcard symbols include the question mark ? and hash #. They replace zero, one or more characters in the middle of a word.

Example:  wom#n finds woman or women, p?ediatric finds pediatric or paediatric.

The symbols may vary in different databases - See the Database operators guide on the left for details or check the Help link in any database.

Wild Card

Wildcard searches allow the database to replace the wildcard symbol with any letters that would make up a real word. It's like a shorthand way of typing every possible word that fits the pattern with OR in between.

Symbol What it does Sample search Instead of typing
* replaces zero or more letters at the end of a word
(this is truncation)
comput* computer OR computing OR computational OR...
# replaces at most one letter ne#t net OR neat OR next OR nest OR...
? replaces only one letter b?t bat OR bet OR bit OR bot OR but OR...

Proximity Searching

Proximity Searching

Proximity searching allows for articles with two or more terms or phrases in certain proximity to each other to be identified.

Types of proximity searches:

  • Near - operational when placing an N and a number between the search terms or phrases, and
  • Within - operational when placing a W and a number between the search terms or phrases. The number is used to indicate the maximum number of words between the two search terms or phrases. 


Dogs N5 Cats

Searches for articles with the terms "dogs" and "cats" within 5 words of each other, REGARDLESS OF ORDER.


Dog W5 Cats

Searches for articles in which the the term "cats" FOLLOWS the term "dogs" within 5 words. Only searches for the terms or phrases IN THE ORDER they are presented in the search.