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Best Practices for Developing Search Strategies: 1: Conceptualize your search

This guide describes 6 strategies used by librarians to perform effective searches for better results.

Know what you want to search!

Consider the following:

  • If relevant, what class are you in? 
    • Make your topic and the approach appropriate to the class you are taking.
  • Who is your population?
    • Adults? Adolescents? Infants? Physicians? Parents? Teachers? A specific racial or ethnic group>
  • What types of studies do you want?
  • What range of years do you want?   
    • Why?
      • This shouldn't be arbitrary. Choose based on rational reasons.  For example:
        • A systematic review was published in 2005 that covered research through 2003;
        • A change in testing guidelines in 2006 made research prior not relevant;
        • A new diagnosed technique was developed in 2001.
      • However, seminal publications can be missed, especially those critical for your background/rationale of your paper.  Be very careful how you limit the range of years you include.
  • What languages do you want to include?
    • If you read only English, then limit to only English.  But understand that this can introduce bias into your research and is considered a limitation when conducting a systematic review. 
  • What setting(s) are you interested in?
    • In other words, is the research you want to look at in hospital settings?  Schools? Home? The community?


Develop a conceptual search strategy

As you consider your topic, begin categorizing it into concepts, keeping in mind:

  • Three concepts generally work best
  • Combine lots of terms to create each concept
  • Perform very broad searches on each concept
    • And then combine concepts to narrow what you actually find to fit only what you want!

Sample Search Topic & Concept Development

To demonstrate each step, we'll use the following topic:

Which interventions, and more specifically, what factors in those interventions result in the reduction of the use of tobacco products, especially cigarettes, among adult African Americans?

If you break the topic apart, what are the primary concepts in the above statement?  What are synonymous terms for each of those concepts?

  • Interventions 
    • Interventions or health promotion or health education or health knowledge acquisition
  • Tobacco
    • Smoking or cigarettes or tobacco
  • African Americans 
    • African Americans or Blacks

As mentioned before, 3 is a magic number when developing concepts.  If you can come up with 3 separate concepts, then you will find that your search is more organized and easier to understand.  The other benefit is that you can more easily edit your search if you are using an interface such as Ovid. 

 Sometimes the third concept is a study type but more often than not you can use the study type to limit results rather than as a concept in and of itself.