Develop your research question
You should form a research question before you begin researching. Reframing your research topic into a defined and searchable question will make your literature search more specific and your results more relevant.
Decide the topic of your search
You should start by deciding the topic of your search. This means identifying the broad topic, refining it to establish which particular aspect of the topic interests you, and reframing that topic as a question. As you search, you might need to make small revisions to your specific research question. This is a normal part of the research process!
Broad topic → Main focused topic → Topic stated as a question → Research → Revise research question as needed
Identify the main concepts in your question
Once you have a searchable question, identify the major concepts. It may be useful to create a concept map. First identify the major concepts within your question and then appropriate minor concepts. Listing major and minor concepts will help you to generate good keywords for your research question.
A search strategy is an organized search of the literature using the major concepts and keywords related to your topic. Each database works differently so you need to adapt your search strategy for each database. It is a good idea to test your strategies and refine them after you have reviewed the search results.
Major and minor concepts can be expressed in different ways. For example, “____” is also known as “____.” Your aim is to consider each of your concepts and come up with a list of the different ways they could be expressed. These are the keywords that you will use in your database searches.
To find additional keywords or phrases for your concepts try the following:
As you search, scan articles, and read abstracts, you may discover different key terms to enhance your search strategy. Keep a running list of the words and short phrases that align with your research question.
To search for an exact phrase, meaning that the words appear next to one another, you must wrap the phrase in quotation marks: e.g., “climate change.” Phrase searching decreases the number of results because your terms are more specific, which will make your results more relevant.
Boolean operators (AND, OR and NOT) allow you to try different combinations of search terms or subject headings.
The three Boolean operators are:
When using Boolean operators in a single search bar, you will need to wrap your OR keywords in a set of parentheses ( ). If using an advanced search feature with numerous search bars, you can omit the parenthesis because each bar serves as a bracket for those terms. Example:
(“climate change” OR “global warming”) AND (glaciers OR “sea level*”)
You can use truncated searches to find variations of your search term. Truncation is useful for finding singular and plural forms of words and variant endings. Many databases use an asterisk (*) as their truncation symbol. Check the database help section if you are not sure which symbol to use. For example, “therap*” will find therapy, therapies, therapist or therapists…
Ways to restrict and widen your search
If your search only finds a few references, or most of the references are irrelevant to your research topic, consider the following:
If you have too many results, you may have to focus your search and make it more specific. Ask yourself:
Each database offers a different range of limiters. Many databases allow you to limit your searches by publication year, language, and publication type. Apply limits one at a time so you can see what effect they have on your results.
Every database employees its own controlled vocabulary, search syntax, and/ or artificial intelligence aided searches. When using a new database, ding the database's Help feature, which will provide information on how to optimize searches within the database. For example, the following Help guides are for several popular databases:
A full text handout of this search strategies page is available:
This guide was adapted from the following sources:
1. Adapted from The University of Leeds. (2021). Literature searching explained.
2. Adapted from content created by Alyssa Young