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Psychology: Psychological therapies literature searching: 1. Selecting your search terms

This tutorial will guide you through searching library resources to find evidence based psychological therapies literature.

Information sources structure research citations into fields to describe the citation. Common fields are title, author, abstract, keywords or subject. 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 topic. It is useful to think of this as a three step process:

  1. Identifying your search terms,
  2. Combining your search terms,
  3. Using search techniques to enhance your search.

Using a concept map can help you think about your topic and break it down into it's key components.

Think about what you are really looking for and decide which words best describe your topic. Be focused and specific. Often searching for the specific type of psychological intervention will provide more relevant results, then general searches on psychological therapies. Thinking about the limits for your search can also provide further keywords. For example the population type; child, teenager or adult. 

Identifying your search terms

Think about those topics/concepts and produce lists of keywords that you could use to track down information on those topics.

Think carefully about suitable keywords and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material - not so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.

You may find it useful to use techniques such as brainstorming, words lists or mind maps to generate your keywords

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

For example:
If you were researching the failure of clinical trials in the UK you could use the following keywords: failure, success, demise, challenges, risk etc.

As well as searching for the UK, you might also search for United Kingdom, GBGreat Britain etc.

When you are searching the global literature think about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy. Truncation and wildcard symbols can help with this.

For example:   globalisation (British spelling)  vs. globalization (American English spelling) 


Also think about differing terminology for the same subject. Subject terms and thesauri can help you with this.

For example:  holiday vs. vacation   /      underground vs.subway      

Consider whether  your area of research uses subject specific terminology, technical terms or other controlled vocabulary.

Use these specialised terms in your searching to improve your results.

If you do not know the standard terminology then the database subject index or thesaurus may help.

Have acronyms or abbreviations been used in the sources you have read? 

These can be included in your search terms in order to find matching results. 

For example: 

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and/or CBT 

Consider whether there are  key thinkers, writers, experts or analysts who are prominent or active in your research area.

It may be worth including these 'names' in your searches. 


If you are searching across long time periods, remember that terminology changes over time. New words appear, others change meaning so be prepared to reflect this in your search strategy.

For example:  tweet or twitter has a dual meaning: 

  1.  posting a short message to the Twitter social media platform
  2.  bird calls or short sharp sounds

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