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A Crash Course in Lit Reviews: Search Strategy

Why Develop a Search Strategy?

If you're like most of us, Google has taught you some very specific search habits. Google uses something called natural language searching. This means you can type in a vague phrase related to a topic and Google will tell you what it thinks is the most relevant information on that topic. For Google, most relevant usually means most visited or those who paid the most to appear "relevant." 

This type of search is fine when you're trying to find the lyrics to that one Guns N' Roses song that had something to do with a jungle. However, when you're looking for credible scholarly sources to use for your literature review, this type of search can hurt rather than help you.

Searching in scholarly databases ensures that you will be looking through sources intended for academic purposes. These databases aren't like Google. They don't try to guess what you might mean or what it thinks is most relevant. They rely on YOU to tell them what is relevant for your purpose.

This requires you to think strategically about what you want the database to show you. You need to build a search strategy by breaking down the key concepts of your topic rather than entering it as a single phrase. Check out the boxes below, and don't hesitate to contact a librarian if you're feeling frustrated!

Turn a Research Question into a Search Strategy

In order to search most effectively for articles that pertain to your research topic, take a little time at the beginning of your project to plan out your search strategy.

1. Break up your topic/research question into it's primary concepts

  • i.e. What impact does tobacco use have on the lung health of teenagers?
    • Population - teenagers
    • Problem - tobacco use
    • Outcome - lung health

2. Brainstorm synonyms for your terms

  • i.e. teenagers, teens, adolescents, youth, young adults, juvenile

3. Add quotation marks around exact phrases and be sure to include both singular and plural

  • i.e. "young adults", "young adult"

4. Search one concept at a time using ORs to include all of your synonyms and then combine your searches with AND

  • Search 1: teenagers OR teens OR adolescents OR youth OR "young adults" OR "young adult" OR juveniles
  • Search 2: tobacco OR smoking OR vaping OR cigarettes OR nicotine
  • Search 3: lung health OR "respiratory health" OR "respiratory distress" OR dyspnea OR asthma OR "pulmonary disorder" OR "pulmonary disorders" OR "pulmonary disease" OR "pulmonary diseases"

The Logic of Searching

Using Boolean Operators when searching will give you better, and more accurate, results.  

  1.  AND- Retrieves articles that contain all of the search terms and narrows down the results. It is best to keep all of your ANDs on separate, vertical lines, and not mix your ANDs and ORs.
  2. OR- Retrieves articles with any of the terms and broadens the search. It is best to keep your ORs horizontal with one line per concept.
  3. NOT- Eliminates articles containing the second term which narrows the search.
  4. Using Boolean logic and keywords are essential when searching library databases.

Boolean Operators

Search Tips

1. Don't search as a single phrase - instead, break your topic up into main concepts and place each concept on its own search line, separated by AND

2. Not finding enough sources? Think of synonyms for each of your concepts and combine them with ORS

3. Use truncations to include multiple variations of a word, i.e. persist* (includes persist, persistence, and persistent)

4. Use the Peer Reviewed or Scholarly Articles limiters in your search results

Selecting and Using Keywords