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After you formulate your problem and develop and ask your research question, you need to develop a search strategy to acquire information.

PICO - Start your search broadly, begin with the P and I elements.
  • Brainstorm keywords related to your topic. 

  • Identify whether you need primary, secondary, or tertiary sources. 

  • Search existing literature to find current and relevant articles and resources to use as evidence and to answer your research question

    • Use library sources for full access to research literature!


Sample topic:  Is patient education effective in reducing COPD among smokers?

Identify the concepts in your topic:

  1. patient education
  2. COPD
  3. smokers

Use a dictionary, thesaurus, textbook, database or CINAHL Headings to find alternative search terms:

  1. patient education
  2. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  3. smoking cessation


Find some relevant studies and look at the information about those sources, and the references. Identify the Subject Headings the database uses to describe the studies AND the keywords in the abstracts. Add these terms to your PICO terms to expand or narrow your search.

When looking at articles, consider whether the resource helps answer your PICO/Clinical question well enough to write about it. Does it directly address at least one part of your PICO question? Will it contribute to your main argument?

Too many sources... 

  • You need to narrow your search
  • Use database LIMITERS (language, peer reviewed/scholarly, date, resource/material type)
  • Try the ADVANCED search option
    • Subject, author, or other selections from drop-down
    • Use database headings or the thesaurus
    • Join terms or phrases with AND, OR, NOT
  • Add additional concepts to your search  and avoid general, less specific search terms
  • Choose subject headings as your search type
  • Search for significant words in the TITLE of the article
  • Select specific article types
  • Use quotes around words to search as a phrase (ie. "global warming")

Too few sources....

  • You need to expand your search
  • Look for misspellings or typos in your search
  • Expand a search term by using synonyms (ie. geriatric OR elderly OR senior)
  • Decrease your number of search terms/concepts to broaden your search (ie. Canada AND "seniors care" AND "critical care" --> Canada AND "seniors care")
  • Try broader or more general search terms (ie. sympathetic --> empathy)
  • Try truncating search terms to find alternate endings (ie. Canad* = Canadian, Canada, Canadians, Canadiana, etc.)
  • Use the database's thesaurus or index to find the exact subject heading
  • Remove unnecessary limiters
  • Avoid sentences, long phrases, idioms, and abbreviations
  • Try other databases
  • Turn OFF the "available in OC collection" limiter in OCtopus


Truncate words to increase your search results

  • Truncation is used to find variations of a word ending. Truncating a word will usually EXPAND your search
  • Example: Remove the ending of the word children, replace with * (or ? in library catalogue), child*. Searches for child, children, childish, child's, etc. OR elder* will search for elder OR elderly OR elders. 

Proximity searching decreases your search results

  • Proximity operators allow you to locate one word within a certain distance of another. 
  • Example: Canada w3 economy. Searches for results in which the word Canada appears within 3 words of economy

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