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Finding Qualitative Research in the Health Sciences

Building a search strategy on your topic

You can begin to build your search strategy by translating the significant concepts from your research question into a concept grid.

What are teenagers' attitudes to quitting smoking?

Concept 1: Teenagers             Concept 2: Smoking cessation

Alternative (similar) keywords

Authors often use different terms to describe the same concept. When searching it is important to consider alternative terms (synonyms) and spelling variations which may be used. Similar terms can be added to the grid beneath the relevant concept:

Concept 1: Teenagers            Concept 2: Smoking cessation


Young people


Smoking cessation

Stop smoking

Quit smoking

Combining search terms with AND and OR

You can structure your search using AND and OR to combine your keywords:

  • AND - use to combine keywords that reflect different concepts e.g. Adolescent AND smoking cessation
  • OR - use to combine keywords that reflect similar concepts e.g. Teenager OR Adolescent OR Youth

Database search tips

  • Truncation (usually *) can be used to find alternate endings of a word e.g. educat* for educate, educated, education, educational etc.
  • Phrase searching (" ") can be used to search for two or more terms as a phrase rather than individually e.g. "lived experience"
  • Wildcards (usually ?) can be used for spelling variations e.g. wom?n for woman and women

Once you have developed your search strategy, you can then use the methods below to find qualitative literature on your topic. Combine your topic search with:

  1. Keywords relating to qualitative studies OR
  2. Qualitative subject headings

Searching with qualitative keywords

You can combine your topic search terms with keywords relating to qualitative studies. Some terms to consider are: Perceptions; Attitudes; Viewpoints; Opinions; Beliefs; Understanding; Feelings; Experiences.

Teen* OR adolescen* OR youth AND "smoking cessation" OR "stop smoking" OR "quit smoking" AND attitude* OR opinion* OR feeling* OR belief* OR experience* OR qualitative

Also think about qualitative methodologies (e.g. ethnography) or methods for data collection (e.g. focus group).

  • Methodology: Qualitative; Ethnography; Phenomenology; Grounded theory; Action research; Ethnological research; Ethnomethodology; Semiotics; Lived experience or life experiences.
  • Data collection or data analysis: Focus group; Observational method; Interview; Survey; Questionnaire; Field study; Narrative.
  • Mixed methods research: Mixed models; Mixed designs; Multiple methods; Multimethods; Triangulation.

Searching with qualitative subject headings

If you are not finding what you need using qualitative keywords, then you may want to consider searching with subjects headings as well. Subject headings are standardised terms, taken from a thesaurus, which are used to describe the topic/s and research methodologies covered in each article.

As they aim to reflect the content of the full article, searching with qualitative subject headings can be more precise than a keyword search in identifying qualitative research articlesSubject headings are also useful to overcome differences in terminology as similar terms are grouped under one heading (e.g. Health services research is applied to articles which include the terms action research, health care research, medical care research, or health services evaluation). 

See Searching health specific databases for information on searching with qualitative subject headings in selected health databases.