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Health Science

Search strategies

Research is not always a linear process and figuring out the best keywords often involves starting out with a few words then adapting, shifting, and exploring. Sometimes one specific word will be enough. Other times, you'll need several different words to describe a concept AND you'll need to connect that concept to a second (and/or third) concept.

Boolean operators (AND, NOT, OR) connect words and concepts. 


Other search tricks:

Truncation: Place an asterisk (*) to end a word at its core, allowing you to retrieve many more documents containing variations of the search term.  Example: replicat** will find replicate, replicates, replication, replicating, etc.  

Phrase Searching: Put quotations marks around two or more words, so that the database looks for those words in that exact order. Examples: "public health" and "prenatal care."

Controlled Vocabulary

Use the terms the database uses to describe what each article is about as search terms. Searching using controlled vocabularies is a great way to get at everything on a topic in a database.  

Search terms are extracted from your research question (such as the terms that may up your PICO) and can be entered into whichever database(s) you decide to use. Databases give you the option of using keywords or subject headings. 

Each database has its own set of subject headings, designed specifically for the literature from the field(s) of study the database contains. Knowing the difference between keywords and subject headings, as well as the advantages and disadvantages for both of them, can help you perform better searches.

Keyword searching is how you typically search web search engines.  Think of important words or phrases and type them in to get results. 

  • Natural language words describing your topic - good to start with 
  • Flexible and able to be combined in any number of ways
  • Searches for matching words or phrases anywhere in the records the database contains (such as title, abstract, journal title)
  • Sometimes either too broad or too narrow, resulting in either too many or too few results
  • Reflective of recent phenomena in advance of when the subject headings are added
  • Sometimes either too broad or too narrow, resulting in either too many or too few results
  • Reflective of recent phenomena in advance of when the subject headings are added

Subject headings describe the content of each item in a database. Use these headings to find relevant items on the same topic.  

  • Pre-defined, "controlled" vocabulary used to describe the content of a text found in a database (such as PubMed MeSH or CINAHL Subject Headings).
  •  Less flexible and must be chosen from the thesaurus used by the database; if the incorrect subject heading is selected, none of the results will be relevant.
  • Database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field, where the most relevant words appear 
  • Helpful for retrieving a set of articles with fewer irrelevant results
  • Slow to change--this means that the most recent changes in knowledge--on diseases, drugs, devices, procedures, concepts--may not be reflected in the controlled vocabulary.

Keyword or Subject Heading Search?

Some basic guidelines are:

  • If the term or topic is very recent, keywords may be the best option
  • If no Subject Heading exists for your term, or seems inadequate, use a keyword
  • If the keyword is too vague or broad, a Subject Heading may help focus your search and eliminate too many results
    • e.g. neuroses would be a very broad keyword search
  • If you want a very comprehensive literature search, you should use both a keyword and a subject heading
    • e.g. Heart attack OR Myocardial Infarction

Use the filters in each database to narrow your search down and eliminate irrelevant results. These helps to maximize your search process by making it more efficient. 

Limiting to a specific year range and peer reviewed articles are the most commonly used filters.

Other helpful filters include by full text availability, study type, population group as well as more specific filters such as "Randomized Control Trials' and "Evidence Based Practice." Filters vary according to database. Typically, you can find filters either on the Advanced Search page, underneath the search boxes or on the left-hand side of search results. These two databases go over in greater detail how to use certain filters in individual databases: Evidence-Based Practice and Quantitative and Qualitative Research

If you find an article that you find good for your research, extract other elements from it that may be helpful for you to find other articles.

These elements would include:

"Keyword: Look at the author-generated keywords, the database subject headings, the title, abstract and introduction for words that may be great additional/alternative search terms. You don't have to know everything about a topic before you start searching - let what you find introduce you to the language of the field.

Author(s): If they're written one article on this topic, they may have written more. Click on the author names to see what else they have in the database, or use their names (individually) as a search term elsewhere.

Journal: They may have published other articles on your topic; sometimes there's even a special issue wholly focused on a single topic. Consider browsing or searching within a specific publication. Oftentimes you'll end up searching in the journal's website."

References: Experts on this topic have gathered and evaluated these sources, make sure you look through them for potential sources for your own work."

 Source: Search Strategies - Literature Reviews & Search Strategies - Research Guides at MCPHS University (

​​​​​​Look at a good article's citations or references to find out more information. To do this:

  • Look at the reference list of your resources to find the sources that those authors used.
  • Find out who has cited your resources.
  • Find more resources written by the same author or published in the same journal.

Use Discovery:

  • If you like a reference, some articles will include hyperlinks to those articles if Hofstra has access to it.
  • If no hyperlink is available, copy and paste the title and search for it via Discovery.

Enter keywords to search the library's catalog for full text electronic articles.


Click here to do an Advanced Search


Search Google Scholar: 

Google Scholar Search 
  • Use Google Scholar: Access Google Scholar through the library webpage (located under G in Browse databases by A-Z or Subject).
  • Google Scholar contains a built-in citation mining tool. It enables researchers to locate how an article has been cited since its publication. 
  • When using Google Scholar through the library database, it will provide you with a link to the full text article if Hofstra has access to it.


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