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Finding qualitative research: How to search?

Develop a search strategy

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It is essential to plan a search strategy before you commence searching. This will help reduce irrelevant results. 
1. Identify key terms
  • Break the topic into the main concepts; these will translate into keywords.
  • Think of synonyms or alternative terms for the keywords.
  • Use truncation (*) to catch all forms of a word, eg. educat* (for education, educational etc.
  • Use wildcards e.g. colo?r to include spelling variations (color and colour)
  • Use phrase searching e.g. "community pharmacy"
2. Combine using Boolean operators
  • AND - combine keywords that reflect different concepts e.humour AND therapy
  • OR  -  combine keywords that reflect similar concepts e.g. humour OR laughter OR comedy
  • NOT - exclude a keyword e.g. humour AND therapy NOT children

3. Refine your search 

     Too many results:

  • limit search by adding more keywords linked by AND
  • use more specific keywords
  • search specific fields (e.g. terms in title or abstract).
  • limit your search by year, article type, peer-reviewed, language etc.

    Too few results:

  • include more alternative keywords with OR
  • you can find more keywords using either the database thesaurus (if available) or by examining the subject headings within an article that you can add to your search.  

Recording your search strategy

Keep a record of the search terms used, the databases searched and the number of results retrieved. This will:
  • identify the most relevant search terms
  • avoid duplicating searches in the same database
A recorded search strategy can be a requirement when publishing your research. When writing reviews in the health sciences, the search strategy is included as part of the article.
The sample form demonstrates how you might complete the template for recording searches. To help you record your search, you may wish to use the blank template below.

Tips for a qualitative search strategy

Please note:    All databases do not use the same subject headings.
Your search strategy will need to be adapted according to the database you are searching.

Steps in carrying out a search:










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Additional terms for methodology Additional terms for data collection
or  data analysis
qualitative purposive sample
ethnography cluster sample
phenomenology theoretical sample
grounded theory focus group
hermeneutics observational method
heuristics interview (semi-structured,
structured, unstructured)
action research field study
ethnological research narrative 
ethnomethodology thematic/discourse analysis
semiotics constant comparative analysis
lived experience or life experiences content analysis

If you are searching for the terms below consider the following alternatives:

  • Software  - Nudist or NVivo
  • Phenomenon  - perceptions, attitudes, views (viewpoints), beliefs, understandings, feelings
  • Data  - stories, narratives, descriptions, themes, findings, questionnaires, interviews, surveys
  • Experiences  -  encounters
  • Mixed methods  - "mixed model*” OR “mixed design*” OR “multiple method*” OR multimethod* OR triangulat*

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