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Nursing: Search strategy

The research process is never linear

  Research can be messy.

  Expect and welcome twists and turns, keep an open mind, and keep asking questions throughout the process.

  Use many different kinds of search tools and resources, and conduct many different kinds of searches.

  Research can be fun, and it is a useful and valuable skill to learn.

 ✓ It is useful to develop the mindset of an explorer.


 From St. Louis Community College Libguide

  Now that you understand your topic, have identified the main research concepts and you have a list of terms for each concept, you can connect them to create a search strategy.

Tips for finding journal articles

 Too Many Results?

  • Use limiters/filters
    • Limit by publication date
    • Limit to peer-reviewed articles
    • Limit by publication type (e.g., research, randomized controlled trials, systematic reviews)
  • If there are still way too many results
    • consider limiting your search by full-text only. 

Too Few Results?

  • Use truncation, and wildcard symbols (*, ?, etc. The chosen symbol varies by database.) Example search: nurs* - results: nursing, nurses, nursery, etc.
  • Choose a broader subject. Example: Change from corticosteroids to hormones, or change from pregnant women to all women.


  1. Look at the terms used in any key articles you found. Look at the abstract, subject headings or author-supplied keywords. Revise your search using some of these terms.
  2. Look at the reference list of any key articles found. 
  3. If you cannot find what you need in one database, try another one.
  4. Change your search. Adding keywords, focusing or removing some concepts.
  5. Searching takes time and practice. You may need to revise your search several times before you find what you need.

Identify the details of your topic in order to compose a PICO question.


Example Answers

Search Terms
MeSH* Keywords**
(Ex: illness, condition, age, gender, ethnicity)
hospital acquired infection cross infection nosocomial infection
(Ex: medication, diet, activity, or method)
handwashing hand disinfection   hand sanitation
Are you making a COMPARISON 
(Ex: alternate treatment, medication, or method)

What is the intended OUTCOME
(Ex: health status, delayed or eliminated illness)

reduced infection see first box see first box

Question (example):Is handwashing effective in reducing hospital acquired infections?

*MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) - set of terms used in biomedical databases to "tag" the subjects contained in articles.

**Keywords - text found in articles or article titles that describe the subject; similar topics; synonyms. (from The University of Texas at Arlington)


  1. Start with a relevant article or a "seed article- an article that strongly supports your research topic.
  2. What papers cite them? (Looking forwards)
  3. What papers do they cite? (Looking backwards)
  4. Keep iterating between steps 2 and 3

TIP: "Looking forwards" in your research 

  • You can find additional, related articles via a database. Look for "Cited by" links (PubMed, Google Scholar) and "Times cited" (EBSCOhost databases) in your search results.
  • Citing publications are published more recently than your relevant article. 
  • Note: The citing author may be supporting or disagreeing with arguments in the original research article.

Cited by shows a list of works that cited this article. The higher the number, the more important the article is in its discipline.

Related articles redirects to similar articles on the subject sharing some of the same keywords and/or references

TIP: "Looking backwards"

  • you will begin with a select number of articles you have identified as relevant/strongly supports your topic
  • search each articles' references reviewing the studies cited to determine if they are relevant to your research.

BONUS POINTS: This process also helps identify key highly cited authors within a topic to help establish the "experts" in the field.

Adapted from University of Wisconsin Whitewater

Truncation & other symbols

Truncation symbol * for many databases                  

Article types


A publication in which all articles go through a peer-review process performed by subject experts before being published. You find peer reviewed articles by searching different databases. You can find a selection of databases in this guide.

P.S. When searching for peer reviewed journals from a database, select the "peer reviewed" or "peer reviewed & academic" limiters in the database you are using to ensure that only journals that have a peer reviewed policy for at least one kind of article are returned.

What is the peer-review process more exactly? Watch the video from North Carolina State University to get a clear understanding:

"Scholarly" sources are

  • authored by academics (majority have advanced degrees) for a target audience that is mainly professional or academic researchers,
  • in-depth analysis typically focusing on one discipline or academic field, with the intent to report on or support research needs as well as advance one's knowledge on a topic or theory,
  • published by a recognized professional society/association or an academic press with academic goals and missions.

Most (but not all) scholarly publications are peer reviewed or refereed by external reviewers.

Scholarly vs. Peer Review

scholarly resource is a resource that is written by an expert in his or her field. Some things to look for on a scholarly resource, specifically a scholarly article would be: publication information, what journal the article is from, Author(s)’ names and affiliations, references/citations, and a general ‘formal’ appearance. May or may not have a DOI (digital object identification) number.

A scholarly source is not always peer-reviewed or refereed. Peer-review means that the scholarly source has been reviewed by several peers before it has been published. This is not to say that scholarly articles are not reviewed before publication, but Peer-review normally means it was reviewed more diligently by other experts in the same field. You may have to check the journal’s website to REALLY know if it is peer-review.

from UTA

Tips for searching

  1. Don't know much about the topic area? Do some background reading. E.g., look in your textbook(s) or a relevant book.
  2. Look at the terms used in any key articles found. E.g., look at the abstract, subject headings or author-supplied keywords. Can you use these terms to further revise your search?
  3. Look at the reference list of any key articles found. These may be relevant.
  4. If you cannot find what you need in one database, try another one.
  5. Change your search. You may need to re-work it by adding another concept to focus it further, or removing a concept to broaden it. Are there any synonyms (similar keywords) you need to add?
  6. Searching for evidence takes time and practice. You may need to revise your search several times before you find what you need.