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Postgraduate library information and digital skills: Planning a search strategy

Mae’r dudalen hon hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg

Planning a search strategy

Information for planning a search strategy and selecting sources

Creating a search strategy

Outlined on this page are the 4 main steps to a successful literature search.  Additional advice and support is always available from your Librarians, see our contact details on the home page.  You may also find the handouts and links below useful.

Finding journal articles

Journals are usually published on a regular basis, such as weekly, monthly or quarterly and each issue contains a collection of articles by different authors usually reporting the latest research.  You can find all the journals we subscribe to using iFind, the library catalogue. 

Journals will be very important to use during your studies, they will provide you with high quality, reliable and up-to-date information.  Using articles in assignments will demonstrate you have read widely on your topic.  The main way to search for journal articles on your topic is to use a bibliographic database.  A database is simply just an organized collection of information or data.  Swansea University pay for access to 100s of high quality databases to help you find the best and most up-to-date information for your research.  The main databases we recommend are below but remember each database will have different content so it's best to use more than one database to make sure you get all the information you need!

PICO - a tool for identifying your clinical question & search terms

Start considering your key search terms by identifying the key concepts in your research questions and then consider synonyms, related terms, different spellings, abbreviations, more specific and general terms that an author or authors may have used to discuss the topic.

The PICO tool Patient/Intervention/Comparison/Outcome can help you to frame your research question and identify concepts for your medical/clinical search.

If PICO isn't working for your search then you might like to consider another framework such as:

  • PICo - Population, Interest, Context (A modified version for qualitative questions)
  • SPICE - Setting; Perspective; Intervention/Interest, of Phenomenon; Comparison; Evaluation.
  • SPIDER - Sample; Phenomenon of Interest; Design; Evaluation; Research type.

Or don't use a framework and separate your topic into different search concepts.

 e.g. Hospital acquired infection

So your key terms could include; Hospital acquired infection/Cross infection


So your key search terms may include; handwashing/hand washing/hand-washing/hand hygiene

Other solutions

So your key search terms may include; alcohol rub/sanitizers/hand rub/hand gel

Reduced infection

So you may include reduction in your search. Although consider carefully as searching for articles that include hospital acquired infection and handwashing and other solutions you may find relevant material without the addition of reduced/reduction to your search.

Key databases

These are the key databases for finding information:

Additional Databases

Successful literature searching

Spending a small amount of time thinking about your search strategy will really help you when finding information for your assignments.  They key points to a good search strategy are:

  • Defining your Keywords
  • Setting limits (ie: date of publication, language)
  • Where are you going to search? (databases, websites etc.)
  • Recording your results

You'll find a few book chapters that can help you when it comes to developing your search strategy on these pages.

There is a wide range of information you may like to include in your assignments.  This includes:

  • Books - We recommend that you start with your module reading list in Canvas to find key texts on your topic.
  • Journal articles - Your main database to locate journal articles is Medline. 
  • Grey Literature - This is basically anything not published in a journal, for example conference proceedings, Government documents, Reports from Organizations.

Getting your keywords right is a very important part of the search process, the more literature you read on your  topic the more keywords and key terms you will come across.  At the beginning of your search you may only have a few keywords, with these you can conduct a scoping search (a brief, broad search) to get an overview of how much literature there is on your topic.  Based on your results you can then refine your keywords and rerun your search.

Correct combination of your keywords using boolean operators (AND/OR/NOT) will be important.  We have created a research record form to help you to think about keywords for your search.  

NB: Some of our databases will also have Subject Headings/Thesaurus headings.  Using subject heading searches is an advanced way of searching for literature and can provide a useful, focused set of results.  Each database will have a help page with further details.

Critically appraising your sources is a crucial element of any literature search and a question we get asked a lot.  How do you know if your sources are:

  • reliable
  • academic enough
  • Free from bias

There are a number of excellent books, book chapters and websites that can help you when it comes to critically appraising your sources.  You'll find a few on these pages.