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Searching for Resources: Search strategy

Search Strategy


There is no perfect search strategy and every researcher will adapt processes that will work for him/her. Even so, most strategies will encompass the ABCs:

  1. Analyzing - Analyze and plan the search question and break it into key concepts/terms.
  2. Brainstorming -  Brainstorm and expand these key terms for other relevant subjects/terms.
  3. Combining - Combine key terms into a refined search string using Boolean logic.

Basically, you need to find relevant terms then combine them in a coherent manner.

Flow char showing search process


You can play with searches to make them as simple or complicated as needed:

  • boys AND reading
  • boys AND achievement AND reading
  • (males OR boys) AND "low achievement" AND "secondary education" AND reading

Look at the 'Search Tips' tab for advice on " " for phrases, AND for limiting and OR for expanding results.

Image explaining Boolean Operators

5 Ws

When you have refined your search, consider the who, what where, how when and why:

  • Who is writing? (authenticity, peer-reviewed authors...)
  • Where will you search? (Explore, databases, archives...)
  • How will you search? (keywords, Boolean operators, authors ...)
  • When is your research is due?  (days, weeks, months, years...) 
  • What are your searching for? (books, journal articles...)

So that you are not revisiting old searches, save your searches on Explore or databases or if you like the pen and paper approach, we've created a search chart you can print off and use! 

Simple Search

  • A simple search works best with uncommon words or phrases, like "heutagogy."
  • Common terms like "education" or "teaching" will return thousands of results, many of which will not be relevant. to your search. For commonly used terms, use the advanced search and the Boolean operators.

Advanced Search

Many search engines and databases offer advanced searching that gives you greater flexibility. What options are available and the special symbols used will vary, so you'll always want to start at the Help, Hints, or Tips screen.

Some of the most common advanced search techniques are:

  • Narrow or broaden your search using the Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT.

  • Search for a specific phrase using quotation marks e.g."history of education."

  • Use an asterisk (*) to truncate words when searching. Child* will retrieve children, childhood, etc.

  • Use a question mark as a wildcard. Wom?n will retrieve women, woman.

  • You can limit where your search terms are found (i.e. limit the search to title only) to increase the likelihood of their relevance.

Peer reviewed

You can take another step when searching by limiting your searches in Explore or databases to 'peer reviewed' or 'scholarly journals'.

By doing this, you will only be searching those journals that have been reviewed and assessed by academic experts. Again, you can not rely on this refinement to on over authoritative sources so may also want to modify your search terms to limit your results.

Website Domains

Image of different website domains

When searching, check out the URL (web address) to assess the authority of a source. One part of the URL indicates the type of domain:

  • .ac - higher education college or university.
  • .gov - government agency or organization.
  • .com - commercial organization.
  • .net - network provider.
  • .org - non-profit organization.
  • .int - international.

The origin of a web page can help you evaluate the legitimacy of a page. Generally, you expect accurate information to be found at domains with .gov or .ac and you can limit your searches to specific domains. For example, the search below will be limited to higher education or university sites in the United Kingdom:


However, be aware that this type of search is not necessarily foolproof. Not everything with .gov or .ac  in the URL will pass the CRAAP test.

Planning a Literature Search by The University of Sheffield

Advanced Boolean Searching by Duquesne University

Serendipitous searching is a mindset that allows you to reframe your needs, cross boundaries and often nets you surprising results. There may not be one article or book that will answer your research question. But a willingness to be taken in different directions may lead you to what you are looking for. Do not let your research question limit the resources that you are exploring. Allow yourself to read articles and books that, while only loosely related to your topic, are interesting and spark new ideas. Research is often a messy process, so don't worry if your searches take you in unexpected directions. 


The more you research, the more questions you should have. Serendipitous search is vital and can provide you with new lines of enquiry, new ideas for keywords, new directions and new understanding. 


If you'd like to learn more about serendipitous searching, check out "Search, Serendipity, and the Research Experience" and "Serendipitous Information Retrieval."


Literature, Narrative and Systematic Reviews

Reviewing literature can take weeks, months or years depending on the type of review you are carrying out. Most students writing a MA dissertation will be preparing literature or narrative reviews. Systematic reviews are usually much longer and involve more than one person. Below are links to  guidance for systematic reviews:

  • The AMSTAR (A Measurement Tool to Assess systematic Reviews) checklist allows you to logically appraise the quality of a systematic review. 
  • The PRISMA Statement (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) gives guidance on writing up and reporting systematic reviews. It can be helpful to use its checklist to compare a particular completed review against the standards set by PRISMA.

While all reviews should be rigorous and there are a number of interpretations of the differences between systematic and literature reviews, the example below gives a snapshot of the characteristics of each.


Difference between Systematic Review and Literature Review.
  Systematic Review Literature Review
Definition High-level overview of primary research on a focused question that identifies, selects, synthesizes, and appraises all high quality research evidence relevant to that question.  Qualitatively summarizes evidence on a topic using informal or subjective methods to collect and interpret studies. 

Answer a focused clinical question.

Eliminate bias. 

Provide summary or overview of topic. 

Clearly defined and answerable clinical question.

Recommend using PICO as a guide. 

Can be a general topic or a specific question. 

Pre-specified eligibility criteria.

Systematic search strategy.

Assessment of the validity of findings.

Interpretation and presentation of results.

Reference list. 





Reference list. 

Number of Authors Three or more.  One or more. 
Timeline Months to years. Average eighteen months.  Weeks to months. 

Thorough knowledge of topic. 

Perform searches of all relevant databases. 

Statistical analysis resources (for meta-analysis).

Understanding of topic. 

Perform searches of one or more databases.


Connects practicing clinicians to high quality evidence. 

Supports evidence-based practice. 

Provides summary of literature on a topic. 


Chart adapted in an accessible format from: Kysh, Lynn (2013). Difference between a systematic review and a literature review. [figshare]. It can be downloaded from the Figshare website