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This LibGuide connects you to library resources and information to increase your skills, confidence, and knowledge in all aspects of nursing research, evidence-based practice, and scholarly communication.

Essential Search Strategy Techniques

Strategy Function

A keyword search is where you enter any terms you develop that describe your topic.

The database will retrieve results based on the exact terms you enter. Some databases will map those keywords to more specific subject headings. 

Keyword searching is very flexible and is the best way to begin a search, especially if you are unsure of the correct terminology to use.  As you begin reading through your results, you may notice trends and patterns in terminology (including other keywords or more precise subject headings/controlled vocabulary) that you can then apply as you revise your search strategy.

Typically retrieves several results, although some may not be relevant to your topic as keyword searching does not always take into consideration the context of search terms. 

VIDEO TUTORIALS: CINAHL Basic Searching EBSCOhost Basic Searching 

Subject Headings

(also known as "controlled vocabulary")

A targeted, precise, and specific way to search using a database's built-in controlled vocabulary.  

Various databases have their own subject headings - i.e. CINAHL Headings in CINAHL and the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) in MEDLINE/PubMed.  

Controlled vocabulary subject headings function like a thesaurus and will take into consideration synonyms, related terms, narrower terms, broader terms, abbreviations, and variations in spelling. 

Typically retrieves fewer results than keyword searching (although not always - it depends on the topic), and results are oftentimes more relevant.  

VIDEO TUTORIALS: CINAHL & MeSH Subject Headings | PubMed Subject Searching

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators provide a logical way to combine keyword or subject heading terms using AND, OR, or NOT

AND will narrow your search by combining one or more terms together

cancer AND fatigue AND exercise will retrieve results with all of those terms

OR will broaden your search by retrieving results on any of the terms you enter

empathy OR compassion OR sympathy will retrieve results with any of those terms

NOT will exclude designated terms from your results 

immunodeficiency NOT HIV will retrieve results with the term immunodeficiency but exclude articles that mention HIV

VIDEO TUTORIALS: CINAHL Advanced SearchingPubMed Advanced Search Builder  


Use of an asterisk * after the root of a word will search for various word endings 

nurs* will find nurse, nurses, nursing

anesth* will find anesthesiology, anesthetist, anesthesiologist 

Phrase Searching

Use of quotes around words will retrieve results with that exact phrase. For example: 

"Algase Wandering Scale" 

"mindfulness-based stress reduction"

"animal-assisted therapy"


Use of parentheses will group desired search terms together in combination with appropriate Boolean operators in a single search box

(dementia OR "Alzheimer* disease") AND ("fall prevention" OR "fall risk assessment") 

This search will find results on dementia AND either fall prevention OR fall risk assessment

It will also find results on Alzheimer disease (or Alzheimer's disease) AND either fall prevention OR fall risk assessment


After conducting a search in a database, you can narrow and refine your search results by applying limiters or filters. These options vary from database to database. 

Limiters and filters for narrowing your results are often located along the left side of your database search results page. Select appropriate limiters/filters that are relevant to your topic or your information need. 

Common options include publication date, type of article, age group, gender, peer-reviewed, etc. 


Organizing Search Terms with Boolean Operators

Boolean logic was developed by English mathematician and philosopher George Boole (1815 - 1864) to describe relationships between concepts.

The Boolean operators AND, OR, or NOT can be used in a database search to logically arrange your search terms together. 

Below are examples of how you can use Boolean operators to make your search for information more effective, efficient, and accurate. 

Boolean Operator Why It's Used Example What You'll Find
OR To search for similar concepts  geriatric OR elderly

Results will include either the word geriatric OR elderly

This broadens the search. 


To relate two different concepts together

stroke AND caregiving

Results will include both words stroke AND caregiving.

This narrows the search. 

NOT To exclude results from a search  dementia NOT Alzheimer's

Results will include the word dementia and exclude any results with the word Alzheimer's.

This narrows the search.

(Use NOT sparingly and judiciously as it may exclude some potentially relevant results)