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Search Skills Tutorial Tabbed Box: Types of Search

Search Skills

Not all searches are created equal - knowing about different approaches, and thinking about which is the most effective for your intended purpose is a skill you need to develop as academic and clinical researchers!

Information need Search type Resource
Facts and general information Quick search  Google, Reference works (dictionaries)
Deep understanding Exhaustive Scientific Journals, Books, 
Clinical  PICO Research Databases, Scientific Journals
Starting out a research project Exploratory search Google, Systematic Reviews, 


When you're looking for studies, you may need to find either primary or secondary research or both. It's also important to understand the term peer review (sometimes referred to as "refereed").

Primary research: Original information such as studies, clinical trials, reports, dissertations, technical reports and data that hasn't been interpreted. You may need to look for primary studies when there isn't much research on a particular topic.

Secondary research: Research that has been evaluated, summarized and/or synthesized such as literature (or systematic) review articles, textbooks and some clinical databases.

Peer review: An editorial process used by certain journals to evaluate research articles or studies submitted for publication. A panel of experts (peers) anonymously assess the methodological quality, pertinence, value, etc. of submissions, often offering suggestions for revision before making a final decision to reject or accept them. Journals using this process are called peer reviewed (or refereed).

Sometimes your question will be clear from your assignment, and other times you'll need to come up with a research question of your own.

Research Questions should be:​

  • Informed - you should know general information about your topic before forming a research question; background reading can help you get a feel for the kind of questions that would be appropriate in a given field.

►How is CAM helpful? Too general and uninformed - this might be a starting-point question that would prompt you to read more about CAM therapies and focus on a specific therapy once you are more informed.

►Is CAM treatment used for sleep apnea.

  • Scoped - can your question be answered within the limits of your assignment - is it a 5 page paper or a thesis?  You may need to narrow your focus to keep it manageable.
  • Structured - sometimes using a format to phrase your question helps: I’m studying _____ to investigate _____ in order to understand _____. This structure gives you a way to keep your question narrow, identifying just the area that you are studying and helping your reader position the question within a field. You can also put your topic into the format of a question or a statement you can address given the length of your assignment.

Know your Tools

One of the keys to searching for information efficiently and effectively is knowing when to use what tool. That may seem obvious, but it's an important concept and can save you a lot of time.

Databases: organized information such as articles, studies and books that are searchable by fields such as subject and author. The information is evaluated to make sure it meets certain standards. They usually have advanced features so you can refine your search and often have preferred search terms (subject headings or tags). Databases often focus on particular topics such as medicine and psychology. For Example, PubMed is the most well-known database for health practitioners in the United States. PsycInfo is the database of choice for the field of psychology.

Search Engines:  Search engines such as Google use a multiple-step process to obtain, index and display web pages. Search engines can't retrieve information available in subscription databases. 

When should I use a database?

  • When you're doing research/writing papers and need high-quality, often peer reviewed information.
  • When you're looking for information on a focused topic such as meditation for smoking cessation.
  • When you're searching for information that isn't available for free and can't be found by search engines.

When should I use a search engine?

  • For finding background information.
  • When a topic or subject is obscure or emerging such as a virus that was just identified.
  • When you need to cast a broad net and need to look for multiple formats.
  • You want to verify a fact, need a definition or other readily available information
  • You're looking for current or breaking news.

Cloud image of databases

When dealing with medical subject matter, you often have to answer "clinical questions".  Keywords for clinical questions can most easily be identified by using the mnemonic device:  PICO

Clinical Scenario:  Your patient is a 76 year old man experiencing balance problems, he has normal blood pressure and vision, and is experiencing no other symptoms. 

Using PICO to identify keywords ensures that your search encompasses information that will be relevant to the clinical scenario you are dealing with.  PICO can seem obvious, but it's surprisingly easy to stray away from information that is relevant to your patient if you don't consciously break down your question.

P - Population or Patient ----> elderly men      
I - Intervention ---->  (tai ji)
C - Comparison ---->  (if available)
O - Outcome ---->  (improved balance)
S - Study type ----> (randomized controlled trial)


Most complex searches should include both keywords and subject headings. What's the difference? Keywords are matched word-for-word by the database which can result in many irrelevant results; subject headings provide a consistent way to retrieve information that may use different terminology for the same concepts.

  • Identify keywords for each facet (aspect or element) of your question 
  • Write your topic in the format of a question or statement, and jot down keywords that address each part:

Topic idea: How has Echinacea been used in relation to colds?

Research Question: Is Echinacea effective for reducing the length of colds?

Keywords and concepts:   Echinacea | Cold 

  • Expand your list of possible search terms before you search a database! Why? It's easy to be led by the initial results  which can create "tunnel vision".  By brainstorming terms and concepts before you start looking, you are more likely to be able to think freely and creatively about how your topic can be expressed.
  • Create a quick table with your keywords, as you start searching, you can additional terms to your list:


Keyword: Echinacea Cold
Synonyms purple cone flower (common name) common cold
Broader Terms asteracaea/compositae  (plant genus) respiratory illness
Narrower Terms echinacea angustifolia  (specific species) nasal congestion, coughing, sneezing

Subject terms are controlled (preferred) vocabulary similar to tagging, they are assigned by professionals. Searching using subject terms help you find all of the documents about a topic even if the document doesn't contain the words you're searching for.* For example, if you were looking for articles about "cats" using just keywords, you might not find an article that only used the word "feline". Searching with subject terms retrieves any article about that subject regardless of the specific words authors use.

*Because of variations in indexing (assigning subject headings), your search may still miss some articles on your topic.

 Using subject terms usually improves the relevance of search results.

The tool for finding subject terms varies by database:

- Thesaurus (PsycINFO)
- Subject heading
- MeSH (in PubMed)
- Emtree (in Embase)

The tool for finding subject terms varies by database:  Thesaurus (PsycINFO)   |   MeSH (in PubMed)   |   Emtree (in Embase)

Keyword Subject Term (MeSH Term) Scope note (definition of the term according to the database) Also finds any articles with:
advil Ipuprofen

A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agent with analgesic properties used in the therapy of rheumatism and arthritis.


Other named drugs with same active ingredient.
nose bleed epistaxis Bleeding from the nose

Nasal Bleeding
Bleeding, Nasal
Bleedings, Nasal
Nasal Bleedings
Nose Bleed
Nose Bleeds

Searching usually requires you to combine one or more concepts- you can do this by using "boolean operators" to create multifaceted searches.Boolean operators include AND | OR | NOT

AND: Returns the intersection of two sets: results contain all the search terms.

Searching for (cognitive AND therapy) finds items that contain both cognitive and therapy.

OR: Returns the sum of two sets: results contain at least one term.

Searching for (cognitive OR therapy) finds items that contain either cognitive or therapy (or both terms).

NOT: Returns the difference between two sets: result contains no records with the term following the NOT operator.

Searching for (cognitive NOT therapy) finds items that contain cognitive but not therapy.

Use "NOT" with caution! Searching for (heart NOT lung) would exclude a record that contains the statement, “We examined heart but not lung,” which is likely to be a relevant find! 

Once you're familiar with using boolean operators (AND OR NOT) you may want to start combining your search terms in more complex ways.

This animation shows you how to add parentheses to your search in order to group items when creating complex searches.  (note there is no sound)


Filters or Limiters 

In addition to the search terms you enter, you can refine your search results by using filter such as date or article type.

Filters are built-in robust searches that each database has to help pull out a particular type of search that would be difficult to achieve using keywords.

e.g. trying to search for documents published between 1990 and 1991 using keywords would be very difficult - would you have to enter every date between 1990 and 1991?  Would the database be able to tell if the number was the date of publication, or the page number?  

This is why you are able to filter by date range instead. 

Other filters often include publication type: 

e.g. peer reviewed, periodical, clinical trial

You can also often filter to only show articles that are available as Full Text PDFs - this can be a helpful tool if you need something in a hurry; if the library doesn't have an article in full text, you can request it and get it within 2-3 days. See Databases/Request an Article.




Funnel Image Credit: By RRZE (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Once you've combined your keywords and added some relevant filters, it's time to scan your search results!

  • Check the number of results - this can be a quick indicator of whether you need to narrow or broaden your search
  • Sort by "Best Match" to get articles that are more relevant near the top of the page
  • Scan the page looking for your keywords in the titles - this is a quick way to decide which abstract to look at first.
  • Open the abstract and skim read it - does it sound like it will answer your research question?  
    • Yes? Then Get Full Text!
    • No? Keep scanning abstracts!



Reading the Results List

Once you've combined your keywords and added some relevant filters, it's time to scan your search results!

  • Check the number of results - this can be a quick indicator of whether you need to narrow or broaden your search
  • Sort by "Best Match" to get articles that are more relevant near the top of the page
  • Scan the page looking for your keywords in the titles - this is a quick way to decide which abstract to look at first.
  • Click on the Bastyr button to view only full-text articles.


Reading the Abstract 

Open the abstract and skim read it - does it sound like it will answer your research question?  

  • Yes? Then Get Full Text!
  • No? Keep scanning abstracts!