Brunel Medical School: Search strategies

Search strategies

Search Strategies

Effective searching of the literature is considered a core skill for the practice of evidence-based practice (Doig & Simpson,


You will be required to conduct literature searches throughout your studies and in particular for the dissertation research proposal and for the dissertation.


1. Define your information need: do you want one relevant result or everything ever published in a field? The answer to this question will shape where you look for resources and the type of search you conduct.

2. Articulate your search terms. Include:

 synonyms e.g. survey OR questionnaire

 alternative spellings. Wildcards are symbols that replace a letter e.g. colo*r finds colour and color

 word stems. Truncation symbols allow for different endings e.g. famil* finds, family, families, familiar but please note that it may also include results  that are not very relevant in some instances.

 proximity e.g. qualitative n3 research, will find the search terms within 3 words of one another

 inclusion e.g. juvenile AND courts

 phrases e.g. "occupational therapy" ensures that the terms are adjacent and do not appear in an unrelated way.

Note that the symbols and abbreviations that you need to use vary between different databases. Check their help pages for details.

3. Compile a search string using a table or grid.

4. Select your tools: are you after a book by a renowned author held in Brunel library, a freely available report or government publication, a journal article, or a thesis or conference proceedings to find out the latest research? You may be able to use an overarching catalogue or database, or need to select a different one for each type of resource.

5. Evaluate your results: How many did you get? Too many or too few? Do you need to broaden or narrow your search? Be more specific by adding additional search terms (use AND) or expand your search by giving alternatives (use OR). Limit them by country of origin, date or funder. Remember, different databases will give you varying degrees of granularity.

CINAHL Advanced Search tutorial


Check out the CINAHL Advanced Search Tutorial.




Plan your search grid

Search strings

Combine search terms to create a string to help you drill down to what is most relevant.

Keep a record to ensure consistency across databases and so that you can record how you refine and change the string, depending on the results that you receive.

This will stop you repeating searches and save time.

Many databases allow you to record your searches if you create a profile.

If you were asked to assess the social impact of nuclear power, you may devise a search strategy like this:

nuclear AND (soci* OR commun*) AND (impact OR outcome* OR effect*) AND (power OR energy) AND NOT (weapon OR bomb OR proliferation) Use the grid below for your research question.

Finding information 

Your research question:


Key term:


Key term: Key term: Key term:

Alternative terms:





Alternative terms: Alternative terms: Alternative terms: