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Researcher Skills Toolkit

Develop an effective search strategy

1. Develop an effective search strategy

Developing an effective search strategy involves the following three steps:

1. Identify key concepts in the research question or topic

2. Identify alternate terms, including synonyms, abbreviations, colloquialisms, and acronyms

3. Incorporate search techniques such as Boolean operators, truncation, wildcards and search operators.

Click the tabs below for more information on how to develop an effective search strategy.

If all concepts are not identified, your search strategy may not be correct and the literature identified may not address your research.  

For example, if your research topic is:

 "The role of social media for promoting participation in sport by refugees living in rural areas" 

Four concepts are included in this research question: 

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3 Concept 4
social media sport refugee rural areas

Several frameworks are available that assist when developing a search strategy associated with the key concepts in a research question.

While your research question may not always fit the formats suggested here, using a framework for guidance can still be a helpful starting point. 

For clinical questions, effectiveness of interventions, treatments or the impact of exposures need to be answered.




Patient/Population/Participant, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome

Patient/Population/Participant, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome, Study type

Widely used in health disciplines 
COCOPOP COndition, COntext, and POPulation. Used to identify the prevalence of a condition
More information Munn, et al. (2018) What kind of systematic review should I conduct? A proposed methodology and guidance for systematic reviews in the medical and health sciences. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 18(5): 10.1186/s12874-017-0468-4

For qualitative research, and evaluating experiences of a specific phenomenon use the following frameworks: 

SPIDER Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation and Research type  Used for both quantitative and qualitative research questions
SPICE Setting, Perspective, Intervention, Comparison and Evaluation Used for qualitative research
CHIP Context, How, Issues, Population  Used to frame qualitative research in psychology
More information For more information, see Cooke, A., Smith, D. & Booth, A. (2012). Beyond PICO: The SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis. Qualitative Health Research. 10.1177/1049732312452938 

It is important to note that sometimes not all the concepts in a research question should be included in a search strategy. Some concepts may be less important than others or may unnecessarily complicate or restrict a search strategy. If including a concept in a strategy increases the chance of missing relevant references, it is best to exclude that concept. 

More information For more information about frameworks used for analysing research questions see the Frameworks for Health and Medicine , Frameworks for Social Science.

Once you have identified the key concepts in your research question, the next step is to think laterally and identify alternate terms, such as synonyms, abbreviations, colloquialisms, and acronyms that other researchers may have used to describe the same concept. 

Tips for identifying search terms

  • Conduct a preliminary search in a subject database within your research field to clarify the topic  
  • Identify common terms used in the literature 
  • Note any relevant subject headings used in the databases. 
  • Check their definitions to confirm whether they are suitable for your research 
  • Check titles, abstracts, and author keywords on articles you have already identified as relevant to your research 
  • Use the reference list at the end of these articles to identify further research that may guide you, then search for these articles in the key databases within your research area. 

It is important to understand the terminology used in your research field. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias can help to clarify the meaning of terms; specialist dictionaries and encyclopaedias may assist to define discipline-specific terms. Check the Subject Resource Guides for links to specialist dictionaries and encyclopaedias.


Checking for variations  

Ask yourself Examples

Are there variations in the spelling of terms? For example, British and American spelling of words

anaesthesiology, anesthesiology
haematology, hematology
analyse, analyze
organisation, organization  

Are different terms used internationally that have the same meaning?  jail, gaol, penitentiary, or prison
Do terms have alternate endings or plural forms that need to be considered?  teen, teens, teenager, teenagers 
Are there alternate terms or synonyms that should be considered?  teenager – youth, adolescent, young adult
Are commonly used abbreviations or acronyms used within the research area?  CALD (Culturally And Linguistically Diverse)
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
SMB (Small to Medium Business)
ROI (Return On Investment)
FOI (Freedom Of Information) 
How can bias be avoided in searching?  Consider searching for the opposite of terms (antonyms) to avoid bias. For example, if searching for ‘barriers’ then consider looking for ‘opportunities’ or ‘enablers.’ 

Keeping track of search terms 

Returning to the example research topic :

The role of social media for promoting participation in sport by refugees living in rural areas

Synonyms and related terms which may be identified as useful for this research question could include the following:

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3 Concept 4
social media sport refugee rural area

social media 

social platform 

social network 





Tik Tok 








asylum seeker 

displaced person 


undocumented immigrant 

illegal immigrant 

forced migrant 

humanitarian entrant 




New terms and concepts can be added when found during the literature search.

Use the search planning form or something similar to document your key concepts, with any synonyms and related terms.

Various techniques such as truncation, phrase and proximity searching, nesting,  Boolean operators and wildcards, can help to maximise the effectiveness of search strategies.These techniques are explained below.

When used together the techniques and strategies included in this section will enhance the potential and scope of results in your research topic.

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Truncation is used to search alternate endings of words.  

Many databases use the asterisk (*) as the truncation symbol. 

An asterisk is inserted at the point in the word where alternate endings exist and need to be identified. 

Child* will retrieve: 

  • Child /Childs/Childless

  • Children/Children's

  • Childish/Childhood/Childlike  

  • Childbearing

  • Childproof 

  • Childcare 

All databases and search tools allow truncation, but the symbols used may vary, so it is best to check the database help for details. 

Do not insert the truncation symbol too early in a term as it may retrieve large numbers of irrelevant records.  

Be mindful when using truncation. 

For example, if your research focusses on identifying the age group 5-12 years it may be best to search using the terms ‘child’ or ‘children’ rather than truncating child* 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Phrase searching allows users to search for literature containing a phrase rather than containing a set of keywords in any order.   

In most databases the phrase needs to be enclosed within double quotation marks.  

Phrase searching can be combined with truncation in some databases. Always check database search help to be sure.

“social network*” 

“asylum seeker*” 

"high school"

Sometimes it is unclear whether quotation marks are needed and using them can limit a search too much.  

For this reason, it is a good idea to experiment by conducting searches with and without them. 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Proximity operators can be used to further refine and focus searches by defining how close search terms must appear to each other in database records, and in some cases, in what order. 


In  ProQuest databases: school N/3 subject

  • retrieves documents with the two search terms within 3 words of each other

In OVID databases: (infant* or child*) ADJ3 (health* or mortality) 

  • Retrieves records which include infant or child within 3 words of either health or mortality.


Proximity operators may vary between database and may include N/, W, NEAR, ADJ, FREQ.

Check the database help section for more details 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Nesting means using parentheses ( ) to specify the order in which a search should be processed.  

Search terms within parentheses will be searched first and then combined with the search terms outside the parentheses. 


“avian flu” AND (transmission OR infection) 

(ranking OR quality) AND institution 


Useful for more comprehensive searching.

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Boolean operators can assist to improve search results by allowing you to include multiple words and concepts. 

Three Boolean operators are frequently used: 

  • OR – broadens your search, any of the search terms can be present 

  • AND – reduces your search, all search terms must be present in the search results 

  • NOT – reduces the number of search results by excluding words from a search  


(“social network*” OR “social platform*” OR “social media” OR Twitter OR Facebook) 


(children AND warts) 


Intelligence NOT (artificial or emotional) 


Ensure you use the correct Boolean operator when combining sets in searches. 

Some databases require Boolean operators to appear in capital letters – check for database help to confirm correct use. 

“NOT” must be used carefully, as it may exclude records that are relevant to the research topic. 

What it does Example of use What to be aware of

Wildcard operators are sometimes called internal truncation. They may be inserted at the point in a word where there is variation in spelling, taking the place of an unknown letter or set of letters. 

Wildcards are useful for searching when a word has different spelling (American, British), or word forms. 

Many databases use the question mark (?) as the truncation symbol. 

In the ProQuest and OVID databases: 

  • colo?r will retrieve either color or colour 

  • wom?n will retrieve woman or women 

  • chlori?e will retrieve chlorine or chloride 

Some databases and search tools may not provide the ability to search using wildcard operators.  

Wildcard symbols may vary between databases so it is best to check the database help for details. 

Using the research question:

The role of social media for promoting participation in sport by refugees living in rural areas

The concept terms and their synonyms can be truncated and phrases identified. 

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3 Concept 4
Social media sport refugee rural area

"social media"

"social platform* "

"social network*" 





Tik Tok 









“asylum seeker*” 

“displaced person*” 


“undocumented immigrant*” 

“illegal immigrant*” 

“forced migrant*” 

“humanitarian entrant*”




These terms and concepts can now be incorparted into any search strategy associated with the research question used as our example.

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