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Psychology: DClin systematic literature searching: 2. Selecting your search terms

This tutorial will guide you through the steps required to systematically search for literature for your service-related project and thesis.

Keyword picture

Databases structure research citations into fields to describe the citation; title, abstract and subject / keywords. Therefore, searching involves using terms and phrases to search the fields in order to find citations that are likely to be relevant to your research question.

There are a number of things to consider that will help you identifying additional keywords including:


  • are there any alternative words and/or phrases you should include in your search in order to improve your search results? 


  • are there differences in spellings and terminology, if so can you incorporate alternatives into your search strategy?


  • have acronyms or abbreviations been used for your keywords or in the sources you have read? 


  • does your area of research uses subject specific terminology, technical terms or other controlled vocabulary? Has it changed over time?
Choosing keywords for your search is one of the most difficult parts of systematic searching. There are a number of different models available, such as concept maps and PICO, that can help you think about your question and break it down into it's key components. Undertaking background reading, having discussions with your peers, and examining the title, abstract, index terms / subject headings / keywords of relevant articles can help you to develop your list of keywords. Once you have your initial terms there are a number of techniques you can use to identify additional terms and expand your search.

The PICO model can help you break down a clinical scenario, turn it into a clinical question and identify search terms.

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