Skip to Main Content

Researching for your literature review: Develop a search strategy

Identify key terms and concepts

Start developing a search strategy by identifying the key words and concepts within your research question. 

For example: How do students view inclusive educational practices in schools?

Treat each component as a separate concept (there are usually between 2-4 concepts).

For each concept list the key words derived from your research question, as well as any other relevant terms or synonyms that you have found in your preliminary searches. Also consider singular and plural forms of words, variant spellings, acronyms and relevant index terms (subject headings).

Search concept 1 Search concept 2 Search concept 3 Search concept 4
students view inclusion schools
pupil perception  special education needs education
young people experience SEN primary
children voice belonging high school
perspective disability secondary

As part of the process of developing a search strategy, it is recommended that you keep a master list of search terms for each key concept. This will make it easier when it comes to translating your search strategy across multiple database platforms. 

Concept map template for documenting search terms

Combine search terms and concepts

Boolean operators are used to combine the different concepts in your topic to form a search strategy. The main operators used to connect your terms are AND and OR. See an explanation below:


  • Link keywords related to a single concept with OR
  • Linking with OR broadens a search (increases the number of results) by searching for any of the alternative keywords

Example: perspective OR attitude


  • Link different concepts with AND
  • Linking with AND narrows a search (reduces the number of results) by retrieving only those records that include all of your specified keywords

Example: inclusive education AND student perspective


  • using NOT narrows a search by excluding certain search terms
  • Most searches do not require the use of the NOT operator

Example: education NOT higher education will retrieve all results that include the word education but don’t contain the phrase higher education.

See the website for venn diagrams demonstrating the function of AND/OR/NOT:

Combine the search terms using Boolean

Advanced search operators - truncation and wildcards

Use symbols to retrieve word variations:

The truncation symbol is commonly an asterisk * and is added at the end of a word.

  • The asterisk applied to the root of a word captures other endings to that root word making it useful for retrieving singular, plural and other variations of a keyword.

Example:  educat* will retrieve education, educators, educational, etc

Note: If you don't want to retrieve all possible variations, an easy alternative is to utilise the OR operator instead e.g. education OR educational.

The wildcard symbols include the question mark ? and hash #. They replace zero, one or more characters in the middle of a word.

Example:  wom#n finds woman or women, behavio?r finds behaviour or behavior.

The symbols may vary in different databases - See the
Database search tips guide for details or check the Help link in any database.

Phrase searching

Use quotes to keep word order when searching for phrases

For phrase searching, place two or more words in "inverted commas" or "quote marks".

Example: “inclusive education”

In some databases, words may be searched separately if the quote marks are not used. In other databases, word order may be maintained without the need for quote marks.

See the Database search tips for details on phrase searching in key databases, or check the Help link in any database.

Subject headings (index terms)

Identify appropriate Subject Headings (index terms)

Many databases use subject headings to index content. These are selected from a controlled list and describe what the article is about. 

A comprehensive search strategy is often best achieved by using a combination of keywords and subject headings where possible.

In-depth knowledge of subject headings is not required for users to benefit from improved search performance using them in their searches.

Advantages of subject searching:

  • Helps locate articles that use synonyms, variant spellings, plurals
  • Search terms don’t have to appear in the title or abstract

Note: Subject headings are often unique to a particular database, so you will need to look for appropriate subject headings in each database you intend to use.

Subject headings are not available for every topic, and it is best to only select them if they relate closely to your area of interest.

Create a gold set

It is useful to build a ‘sample set’ or ‘gold set’ of relevant references before you develop your search strategy.

Sources for a 'gold set' may include:

  • key papers recommended by subject experts or supervisors
  • citation searching - looking at a reference list to see who has been cited, or using a citation database (eg. Scopus, Web of Science) to see who has cited a known relevant article
  • results of preliminary scoping searches.

The papers in your 'gold set' can then be used to help you identify relevant search terms

  • Look up your 'sample set' articles in a database that you will use for your literature review. For the articles indexed in the database, look at the records to see what keywords and/or subject headings are listed.

The 'gold set' will also provide a means of testing your search strategy

  • When an indexed article is not retrieved, your search strategy can be revised in order to include it (see what concepts or keywords can be incorporated into your search strategy so that the article is retrieved).
  • If your search strategy is retrieving a lot of irrelevant results, look at the irrelevant records to determine why they are being retrieved. What keywords or subject headings are causing them to appear? Can you change these without losing any relevant articles from your results?

Example search strategy

An example of a search strategy incorporating all three concepts that could be applied to different databases is shown below:

screenshot of search strategy entered into a database Advanced search screen

The above search strategy in a nested format (for use in a single search box) would look like:

(student* OR pupil* OR "young people" OR learner*) AND (perception* OR experience OR voice OR perspective*) AND (inclusi* OR "special education" OR belonging OR disabilit*)