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Systematic searching: Building a search strategy

What does it mean to search systematically?

Systematic searching requires both a careful search plan that you follow and the use of a wide range of databases. You also need to be able to repeat and report on your searches.

The information retrieval process follows a formula of PLAN - SEARCH - EVALUATE. In practice, however, the process is not so straightforward; you might have to go back and edit your search several times before you have a final working search term. Before settling on a final search phrase, you should test your phrases. If you are not satisfied with the results, revise your search phrases.

Building a search strategy

This section presents a model for building a systematic search strategy, consisting of eight steps. Go through the pages of this section in order. You can build a search strategy for your own topic based on this model. Also, be sure to write down all the different steps in detail so that you can report on your search process in your final paper.

The steps are:

  • From topic to research questions
  • Establishing key concepts
  • Ideation of free words (own words, jargon)
  • Searching for database-specific subject headings (e.g. CINAHL Subject heading)
  • Targeting the search
  • Building search terms
  • Executing searches in databases (remember to save search histories)
  • Search delimiters
  • Evaluating the search result

There may also be overlaps in these sections. For example, you may find new search terms even during the search execution phase. 

References:

Example topic

This section uses an example topic to build a search strategy:

"Nursing students' hand hygiene skills".

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Photo: Kristine WookUnsplash

Save your searches

Use a Word file, for example, to keep your search terms and the search phrases you formulate later in the process up to date. A good practice is also to save the search phrases in your own user account in each database.

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