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Keyword Searching

Figuring out how to communicate with databases in order to find research articles can be a bit tricky. While you can ask Google a question and get an answer, academic databases are a bit different and you have to use a different strategy if you want to make sure you are finding the best evidence from the published scholarly literature.

Best Practices

  • Think critically about your research question and identify the primary concepts in your search
  • Think about alternate ways of describing those concepts
  • Avoid acronyms
  • Use AND, OR, and NOT strategically to combine your terms and broaden or narrow your search as needed

Scroll down to view an example

Say you're interested in finding research about how noise levels in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) effect brain development.

There are three primary concepts in your search:

  1. Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
  2. Noise
  3. Brain Development

So your initial search strategy is:

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit AND Noise AND Brain Development

Notice we've removed all of the unnecessary words -- words like levels and effect. Here's a rule of thumb-- if you can imagine an article would be useful without a given word, you probably don't need that word in your search strategy. Effect is a good example-- an article may use the term "the impact of noise on brain development." This article would be highly relevant, but if you included effect in your search strategy, you might miss it.

Beware of acronyms...

IV, ICU, PTSD, NICU, NPO, CBC, A&D, L&D, ER, GI, DX...we could go on for days. The health sciences use a lot of acronyms. In general, when searching it's best practice to avoid using acronyms and spell out the phrase or word-- use intravenous instead of IV, intensive care unit instead of ICU, etc.

Synonyms are important...

There are lots of ways to explain a given concept or idea. A search using the term high blood pressure might have different results than a search using hypertension. Put some time and energy into identifying alternative terms for your concepts of interest. If you're stuck, try doing some very general background research on your topic to get a handle on the language used. Take a look at an encyclopedia entry or reference source on the topic, or even just read a relevant wikipedia entry (but of course you probably don't want to use wikipedia in your paper).

AND, OR, and NOT

Let's take a moment to review what AND, OR, and NOT can do for your search strategy. These words are Boolean Operators.

Scroll down for more information

AND

AND tells the database that all terms must be present in every result the database brings back. AND narrows your search; the more terms you combine using AND, the fewer results your search will retrieve. For instance: Neonatal Intensive Care Unit AND Noise AND Brain Development will only bring back articles that include all of those terms.

OR

OR broadens your search. It tells the database to bring back results that have any of your search terms. The search brain development OR noise would bring back articles that discuss brain development, but not noise, and noise, but not brain development. OR is best used for synonyms or related terms. For instance: brain development AND (noise OR sound). Every article returned would discuss brain development, and either noise or the related term sound.

NOT

NOT excludes results that contain a specific term. It's good practice to use NOT sparingly, and generally in response to a problem in your search.

For instance, if you're looking for research on brain development and noise, and keep finding animal studies done on lab rats instead of humans, you could search for (brain development AND Noise) NOT rats

A word about (parentheses)

In some databases, particularly those with only one search field, using parentheses along with your Boolean search terms is very important.

For example, the search Neonatal Intensive Care Unit AND (Sound OR Noise) will bring back every article in the database that contains the words Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and either the words sound or noise. However, the search Neonatal Intensive Care Unit AND Sound OR Noise will bring back a set of results in which some articles contain the words Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and the word sound...as well as every single article in the database that contains the word noise, regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the NICU.

A word about "quotes"

If you want the database to search for a very specific phrase, enter that phrase in quotes. The search "infant development" --with quotes-- will bring back articles that include those two words in that exact order. Without quotes you'll get back articles that include the word infant and the word development, but not necessarily in that order or right next to each other, or even in the same sentence.

Every database is different...

While the previous search tips are helpful no matter what database you're searching, every database is different. The following brief videos provide essential tips for running successful keyword searches in CINAHL and PubMed.

CINAHL keyword searching

Many of the strategies can also be used in PsycInfo, SocIndex, and other Ebscohost databases.

PubMed keyword searching

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Created By
Claire Sharifi
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