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Researching for your literature review: Search strategy

Developing a search strategy - Education/Social sciences topic example

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

Combine search terms with OR / AND / NOT (Boolean operators)

screenshot of boolean operators infographic


  • 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.

Use symbols to retrieve word variations

screenshot of the Truncation and Wildcard infographic

Truncation - 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.

Wildcard  - 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.

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.

Identify appropriate Subject Headings (index terms)

Many databases use subject headings to index content. These are generally selected from a controlled list by experienced indexers (people - not machines!) 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.


Identify useful limits

Many databases provide system based limits. Adding a limit to a search will exclude certain material not relevant to your research question, and therefore reduce the number of results.

Examples include:

  • limiting to English language
  • limiting by publication date
  • limiting to a specific document type
  • limiting your search to specific fields, such as only searching in the Title/Abstract fields

The use of limits should be justified by the focus of your research and any constraints.

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

Sources for a 'sample 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 'sample 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 'sample 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?

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*)