Skip to Main Content

Library Guide for Nursing, Psychotherapy & Community Health

Quick Guide to Searching

This page will give some quick tips on how to best approach your searches and find & analyse the best results. See below for help in forming your research questions, building your search vocabulary, using the PICO process, and making use of Subject Headings to refine your searches.

  See our TWO LETSfind modules on Effective Search Techniques as well as Effective Web Searching to help get started.


Search through the different tabs in the Search Tips box below

Search Tips

Search Strategy & Keywords

  1. Consider Research Question - write out the basic question you are asking and want to find research on (see PICO process tab for help in making a research question)
  2. Highlight key concepts & topics - Break down you research question into its individual parts, (e.g. What/Who are you researching?)
  3. Note down alternative keywords - Build your search vocabulary by considering alternative words to these concepts (e.g. different variations on the word youth)
  4. Combine keywords - Use 'Boolean Operators' (see below) to combine keywords into full search terms (e.g. Youth OR Child OR Adolescent)
  5. Choose a Database - Select a relevant database to search for your topic
  6. Search - Run your searches using the above steps. As you search, look for new keywords and terms to expand you search vocabulary.
  7. Limit/Expand your results as necessary - Use the in-built database filter options to narrow your results OR Re-run your search by adding and subtracting keywords.

See our Developing a Search Strategy intro video below:

Download the Search Strategy template here

Boolean Operators - AND, OR, NOT
OR - will select either one of the chosen words, allowing a broader range or results as it searches for each of the keywords used separately - Use this to refine your individual parts together first.
AND - will combine search queries together and search only for results with ALL of the chosen terms- Use this to Combine each individual part of your search back together into a full search query
NOT - will remove a keyword from results to allow a definite focus on a particular term.

* - Use the * wildcard symbol to truncate words and broaden your search. This can be used to target multiple keywords at once, instead of having to put them all in, by replacing the last few letters of a word with the *.
For example, the keyword "interactive" will only return results with this specific word. BUT using "interact" will search for interact as well as anything beginning with it (such as interacts, interactive, interaction and interactivity)

See our downloadable Search Strategy template for help in breaking down you research question and using Boolean operators to make a search query.

  • Repeat the process above a few times to focus in on your research needs! It can, and will, take a few different searches to find exactly what you need
  • Keep reviewing and refining your keywords! Add or subtract keywords as you search and keep building your search vocabulary!
  • You can run smaller single topic searches, and use the Database search history to combine multiple searches together as you go. 
  • Use each databases filter options, to limit results by different factors (such as year published, language, age group, etc.)


Check out our quick video guide on How to refine your search as well

Subject Headings

Subject Headings are controlled vocabularies used by databases to describe a concept. 
Journal articles will be assigned specific subject headings, with the goal that other relevant articles on this concept can also be found easier using them, as databases will group all these under the same heading.

Using Subject headings can help focus your research by limiting your searches down to only articles which fall under a chosen subject heading.

Searching by Subject Headings within databases often works in one of two ways:
- You can use your keywords as normal and have the database Map (or Match) these against its Subject vocabulary
- or You can go straight into their Subject Headings and browse yourself

Many databases will have different ways of using and presenting their Subject Headings, or they may call them by a slightly different name, but they will all act in the same way for searching:

  • CINAHL Complete uses CINAHL Subject Headings as its term
    MEDLINE uses MeSH (Medical Subject Headings)
    EMBASE uses Emtree thesaurus, to search by Term or Facet.
    PsycInfo uses the APA Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms

Subject headings will usually be a branch of an overall Subject Tree, meaning you can expand or narrow your subject term as appropriate (e.g.  Psychotherapy as subject heading will have smaller sub-headings under its umbrella to narrow your focus. OR Childbirth as a subject heading may fall under a broader Patient Care heading, allowing you to broaden your search out to this umbrella term)

Subject Headings are not exclusive, and articles can and will have multiple headings assigned to them.


Subject Headings Or Keywords?

A full, comprehensive search will make use of both Keywords and Subject headings. Use your keywords for your initial searches, which can help locate, define, and narrow down your Subject Headings. 
You can then use the Boolean Operators as above to combine Subject Heading searches with keywords to clearly define and focus your search even more.
Your Subject headings search will limit results to relevant articles on that topic, allowing you to use your keyword terms to search within this topic.

Keyword Searching is an essential process early on in your research, while Subject Searching is important to refine and limit your searches to the most relevant results.
Combine the two together to help get the most relevant results possible!

The PICO process

The PICO process is one commonly used method of formulating a research question, and helps in defining and identifying the exact areas of your research.
While you may begin your research with a basic clinical inquiry, using PICO can help focus this down into a structured, specific research question with clearly defined areas.

PICO stands for:
P - Patient (i.e. Who are the individuals or group being studies?) This can sometimes be substituted with the term Population
I - Intervention (What is the treatment or specific action being studied here?)
C - Comparison (What is your Intervention being compared against?) OR
      Control (e.g. this can this just be a simple Yes or No on the Intervention taking place or not, or can be a placebo/control group)
O - Outcome (What is the anticipated outcome or measure you wish to look at?  What effect/ consequences will the Intervention have on the Patient?)

Sample PICO question - In "immunosuppressed individuals" (Patient), how effective is "Hand Sanitiser" (Intervention), vs. "normal Handwashing" (Comparison), at "limiting infection spread" (Outcome)?(Sample PICO question 1, highlighting the four individual PICO parts of a research question)

As an Optional Extra, this can be expanded out to the PICOT process, which adds an extra element to your research question:
T - Time or Timeframe (i.e. how long will your Intervention be studied, or how long will it take to reach the Outcome?) For example, "in arthritis patients, how effective is hydrotherapy on pain relief during the first 24 months of treatment?"

Using PICO allows you to better visualise and frame your research question, and makes it easier to identify the key concepts so that you can begin looking at building your list of keywords to search by (to populate the Search Strategy template as above)

Although the PICO process is not the only method of formulating a research question (there are other emerging methods of framing your research question), according to Brandt Eriksen and Faber Frandsen (2018), "the PICO model is by far the most widely used model for formulating clinical questions".

- EMBASE offers its own in-built PICO framework search here.
- Cochrane Library also has an advanced PICO search tool, as well as offering a quick PICO search About in its Community page
EBSCO/CINAHL Complete have also published a White Paper - "Evidence-based Nursing Practice: Seven Steps to the Perfect PICO Search"  which you can access and download for free here.

PICO does not need to be rigidly adhered to, so if your specific research does not comfortably fit into a PICO style question, don't worry! 
PICO can also just be used as a way to help structure and identify the specific individual parts of your question, so that you can do keyword/subject searching easier.

Sample PICO question 2 - For "elderly arthritis patients" (Patient), is there an impact of "Hydrotherapy" (Intervention), on "joint relief during exercise" (Outcome)? - Control = Control group on intervention, i.e. NO hydrotherapy
(Sample PICO question 2, highlighting the individual parts of a research question using a Control instead of a Comparison)

Brandt Eriksen, M. and Faber Frandsen, T. (2018) ‘The impact of patient, intervention, comparison, outcome (PICO) as a search strategy tool on literature search quality: a systematic review’, Journal of the Medical Library Association, 106(4), pp. 420–431. doi:10.5195/jmla.2018.345

Other information Sources

  Check out our LETSbegin module on Types of Information Sources for a good overview on different information sources

As you will have seen while searching some specific databases, there are more information sources than just academic journal articles. You will also find other types of periodicals within databases, such as trade publications, popular magazines, and newspapers. Periodicals is a term for anything printed/published at regular intervals.

One of the most common other information sources outside of periodicals, is what is known as Grey Literature. You may see this term referenced in your research also.
Grey Literature is a catch-all term for any documents or materials produced, and made directly available, via government, institutions, organisations, or agencies. This includes but is not limited to government papers, conference talks and papers, dissertations, reports, white pamphlets, policy documents, and white papers.

Grey Literature:
- is generally produced outside of the regular publishing routes that journal articles take.
- is distributed and made available directly by the party involved. Due to this, Grey literature is sometimes not indexed or catalogued in academic databases.
- can be more difficult to search for due to it coming from a singular individual source.
- does not go through a peer-review process, and so should be evaluated more carefully.

There are some exceptions to this, such as Clinical Trials, Evidence-Based Care Sheets, and some reports, which are specifically chosen and curated by certain databases - meaning they have been peer-selected and catalogued in a database for a specific purpose.

As you expand your research , you will encounter Other information sources, such as News items, social media posts, general websites and blogs, as well as a number of Wikis. The accuracy and authenticity of these can vary wildly as these types of material comes from a range of unregulated different sources and avenues. It will be up to you to evaluate and determine if any of these sources are valid and usable for your work.

Evaluating and choosing information sources

  See our LETSfind module on Be critical: Evaluating Sources as well for more information on deciding what sources to use.

Always be critical of any information source you find, and think about where it is coming from and who has provided it, and evaluate it accordingly.
Use out LETSfind module above to help guide you, or contact your Subject Librarian if you have any questions about evaluating certain resources, but a few quick tips are:

- Is the database/journal relevant to our research? Will the information be in line with your studies or not?
- For Grey Literature, is there any potential bias?
- Outside of journals/databases, Think about WHERE the information is coming from. And ask some of the following: Who is providing this information? Is this just an opinion piece, or is it factual? Have they sourced or referenced anything in their work?