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Graduate Nursing Resources

What is a Search Strategy?

At its most basic, a search strategy is a way of keeping track of where (information sources such as databases, library catalogs, websites, etc.) and what (keywords or search terms) you used to look for sources and research on your topic.

When thinking about how to write up the search strategy for an assignment, including your DNP scholarly project, you will want to keep track of every place that you searched and the exact search terms you used for each source.  It is helpful to first think about what constitutes an information sources and then what a search strategy is.

An information source is basically where you search for information.  Here are some common examples:

  • Journal databases - these are journal and citation indexes that use controlled vocabulary and produce clear repeatable results, examples include MEDLINE, CINAHL, and APA PsycInfo
  • Multi-database searching - some sources allow you to search multiple databases at the same time, for example the databases vendors EBSCO and ProQuest allow you to search more than one database at a time
  • Online resources - any online source you purposefully searched
    • For example, PubMed and Google Scholar (these seem like databases, but do not have controlled vocabulary or reproducible searches (there is a hidden algorithm that is determining what you see) so for this purpose would not be considered a journal database.)
    • Also, journal platforms like Elsevier or Sage only allow you to search one publisher's journals and are not considered a journal database.
    • Any websites you searched, for example, government or agency webpages (this is sometimes called the Grey Literature)
  • Citation searching - this is when you look at the references of an article you have found, this can be done manual or through Google Scholar.  If you have done searching this way, you will want to clearly reference the articles that you mined for citations
  • Contacts - did you seek additional studies or data by contacting authors or experts in the field?
  • Other methods - anything else you did to find references

A search strategy, is 'how' you searched the information sources, for each information source you will want to report:

  • What were the exact keyword and terms you used and how did you combine them? (See box below for more on keywords and Boolean logic)
  • How did you add anything to limit your search? (for example additional keywords, or limit by article type or publication type, limit by population)
  • Did you add any filters after you searched? (For example, filter to English language or peer review, or certain publication dates)
  • Include the date when you performed the search? (When writing up a search strategy you want to include the date you searched, this helps if you (and the reader of your search strategy) come back to see if there is anything new on the topic.)

This information is adapted from the PRISMA-S guidelines for reporting searches and search strategies.

Rethlefsen M. L., Kirtley S., Waffenschmidt S., Ayala A. P., Moher D., Page M.J., Koffel J.B. (2021). PRISMA-S Group. PRISMA-S: an extension to the PRISMA Statement for Reporting Literature Searches in Systematic Reviews. Systematic Reviews, 10(1).

How to Search an Information Source

You can always start searching an online source by just putting some keywords in the box to see what results come back, but knowing a little more about how the databases work can help in returning more relevant sources.

Boolean Logic: watch this short video on Boolean operators (e.g. AND; OR or NOT)

  • AND means that both words must be present (makes for more narrow results) - Fungi and Cancer
  • OR means that either word may be present (makes for broader results and is usually used for synonyms) - Fungi OR Mushrooms
  • NOT means that a word will be excluded from the results (makes for more narrow results) - (Fungi OR Mushrooms) NOT Yeast

Parentheses: using parenthesis along with Boolean operators can help the database know what results you want (read the Boolean operators in the correct order).

  • This search, Cancer AND Fungi OR Mushrooms, will return articles about cancer and fungi and articles about mushrooms
  • This search, Cancer AND (Fungi OR Mushrooms), will return articles about cancer and fungi and articles about cancer and mushrooms

In the EBSCO databases I will usually put synonyms in the same box with an OR and different concepts each in their own box (the boxes effectively work as parentheses in the search:

screen capture of a EBSCOHost Database (MEDLINE) search showing cancer or neoplasm or tumor in one box and fungi or mushrooms in the second box

Truncation symbols: most databases allow the use of * to truncate a word.  In searching it will return results for any word that starts with the characters you enter for example: nurs* = nurse, nurses, nursing, and nursery (this can be very helpful if a word has multiple endings, but also note that this last word, nursery, actually has a different meaning than the rest, so sometimes truncating can bring in some irrelevant results.

Search strategy: Searching databases in a consistent, structured manner will save you time. Keeping track of your search history can help you refine your topic, your thinking and your search strategy, and ultimately retrieve more relevant results. After each search, reflect on the keywords and synonyms you used, are there other terms, or another way to combine, to get more relevant results?

Steps in developing a search strategy include:

   - define terms and write down your research question 
    - identify, and keep track of key words, terms, and phrases
   - identify keyword synonyms or reflect on narrower (or broader search terms)
   - determine a timeframe for search results
   - consider what type of material you will include and why
   - identify where you will search for the information

Sample Search Strategy Write up

This is just one example (not a template) for how a search strategy might be written up.  Note that the searches are clearly reproducible, someone could go to the information sources listed and do exactly the same searches.  Additionally, it includes the date the searches were done and the limiters applied in each source.

In August 2021, the databases MEDLINE and Biological Abstracts were searched using the terms: (fungi or mushroom*) AND bioactive compounds. In each database the searches were further limited to English language, published between 2016 and 2021, and peer review articles.  This resulted in 869 results in MEDLINE, and 2032 in Biological Abstracts.  So I did a more narrow search by adding in the concept of depression, leaving me with seven results in Biological Abstracts and  five results in MEDLINE. The resulting 12 articles were then hand reviewed by skimming titles and abstracts, and five applicable articles were selected for inclusion.  Additionally, the online source, Google Scholar was searched (in incognito mode) using the terms: depression and mushrooms and "bioactive compounds".  From there three additional articles were selected from the first two pages of results.  As a final step, two previously selected articles were entered back into Google Scholar and the "cited by" function was used to find additional newer articles (Barros et al. 2007; Elkateeb et al. 2019).