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Searching for qualitative studies: Home

A guide to finding qualitative research in databases.
During your research you may need to identify specific types of research; quantitative research (numerical data which can be ranked, measured, or categorised through statistical analysis), qualitative research (data about lived experiences, emotions or behaviours, and the meanings individuals attach to them), or mixed methods research (using both qualitative and quantitative research, providing a holistic approach combining and analysing the statistical data with deeper contextualised insights).
How these different types of research methods are indexed within databases varies widely. Sometimes it can be challenging to locate qualitative studies as some databases are less effective at categorising them. Often authors don't use the word "qualitative" when identifying their methods in the title or abstract. Sometimes the terminology for a specific qualitative methods is used instead. There are a number of techniques you can use to locate qualitative research within databases. This guide explores the three main options; using subject headings, keyword searching, and limiter / filter options.

Using Subject Headings

Some databases categorise their records using subject terms (such as MeSH - Medical Subject Headings) or controlled vocabularies (thesauri). These categorises vary between each database depending on their indexing system. 

For example, the term 'qualitative research' is indexed as "qualitative research" in Ovid Medline"qualitative methods" in APA PsycInfo and "qualitative studies" in CINAHL Complete

Some databases also index specific types of research, for example focus groups, interviews etc., which can help you locate specific research methods.

You can combine your topic searches with subject heading searches to locate qualitative research. There are examples of how to do this in the following tabs.

Using Subject Headings in APA PsycInfo and Ovid MedLine.

1. Select the advanced search option and search for qualitative.

Note: in advanced search the option to map to subject heading is automatically ticked.

2. Select continue to search. 

3. Using the multi-field search option enter you search terms. 

4. Once you have run the search you will need to combine the search to retrieve only the qualitative research results. 

Using Subject Headings in CINAHL.

1. Select CINAHL Subject Headings.

2. Search for qualitative. Select qualitative studies and the option to explode the term to include all research types. Then click search database.

Note: Your subject heading search will appear in your search box as (MH "Qualitative Studies+")

3. Now enter search terms for your topic. For example if you were looking for qualitative research about CBT and mindfulness you could enter terms like this: 

These instructions can also be used in the Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection to apply the qualitative subject heading. In this database you click on subjects to start the process and use the subject term 'qualitative research', then add your topic keywords to the search.

Keyword search options

For databases that don't use Subject Heading or controlled vocabulary, keywords are used to index their content. You can identify suitable keywords for qualitative research and combine these with your topic keyword searches to find relevant research. 

You could use keywords for qualitative measures such as perceptions, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and experiences, or qualitative research methodologies such as focus groups, lived experience / life experiences, interviews, observation, narrative or grounded theory. 

You can focus on a particular methodology or search more widely. For example: 

(“qualitative research” OR “qualitative method*” OR interview* OR "focus group*" OR ethnographic OR phenomenolog* OR "action research")

Note: It's likely you may find some mixed method studies in your results. There is no simple way to exclude these.

This is an example of a combined qualitative and topic keyword search in the Web of Science. 

Limiters and Filters options

You could use the limiter or filter options to narrow down your search results and help you find qualitative research. 

The options available vary between databases, not all of them offer a qualitative filter.

For example, in APA PsycInfo under additional limits there is a "methodology" limiter. Options include qualitative studyfocus group or interview. You can select one or more of these options and apply them to your search. 

In some databases you can apply the limiters as part of your initial search, in others you need to apply them once you have completed your topic search.

Take a look at the limiter or filter options in the database you are searching to see what is possible. You can explore the databases help section for more information. 

You can also make use of validated search filters on many databases. These are essentially pre-designed search strings containing a range of keyword terms and subject headings designed to target qualitative studies on a specific database.

You can find a list of pre-designed filters for finding qualitative studies here. Select the database you plan to use and try including one of the pre-designed search strings in your search strategy. 

Here is an example of how the filters work. For the purposes of the example we have used a qualitative research filter for Ovid Medline designed by the Canadian Health Libraries Association.

This is the filter:

((("semi-structured" or semistructured or unstructured or informal or "in-depth" or indepth or "face-to-face" or structured or guide) adj2 (interview* or discussion* or questionnaire*))).tw,kw or (focus group* or qualitative or ethnograph* or fieldwork or "field work" or "key informant").tw,kw or interviews as topic/ or focus groups/ or narration/ or qualitative research/


You will see a range of keyword and subject headings (defined by a forward slash) alongside advanced search techniques.

You can add the filter to your search strategy using Boolean AND. Take a look at the screenshot below for an example. The original search strategy is highlighted in a yellow box (two concepts combined with AND). The original search recalled over 3000 results. In line 4 of the search we ran the search filter for qualitative studies for Ovid Medline (highlighted in green). The final line of the search (5) combines the original search results (line 3) with the search filter (line 4). This leaves us with qualitative studies only (109 results).

Search filter Ovid Medline

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