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Occupational Therapy: Search Tips & Strategies

Resources for Occupational Therapy.

Page Outline

There are many ways to search.  Scoll on down and find the tips that work for you & your project. 

This page covers:

  • Getting Started
  • Combining your terms & Boolean
  • Subject Terms & Keywords
  • Citation Searching

Scroll down to see more!

Getting Started

Use multiple databases (search engines).  There will be overlap in what you find, but each will have something unique.   The following should be helpful for most if not all searches.  More databases are listed under the first tab of this guide and also on our website: 


MEDLINE or PubMed (basically the same database, just different search interface)


Extrapolation is key.  Keep in mind that you will have to pull pieces of information from various articles to make your point.  You might not – probably won’t – find the perfect article that sums up your position. 

Take notes as you go.  It’s really hard to find or document things after the fact.  (I found this out the hard way.)  So tract where you search, the terms you use, and the citations you find as you go.  Paper or online doesn’t matter.  Just track it.  Zotero can help with tracking your citations. 

If an article looks *remotely* useful, make note of it.  It’s always easier to cross it off later than try to find it again.  (Sometimes you can’t find it again.  I learned that the hard way too.)

Combining Terms & Boolean

Start with one concept at a time.  That way you can mix and match search sets. Search all the terms for just one concept. Repeat for your other concepts.  Then, combine the sets. You might need to mix and match them in different combinations. Also, you might find that you can only use two concepts together out of three.  When you have multiple concepts it’s easy to end up with nothing. 

Combine terms with OR to get more results.   Use OR to combine synonyms and like terms. If there isn’t much on your topic, you definitely want to do this. A search on walking aids in PubMed might look like: 

walkers OR canes OR crutches OR walking aid

Combine terms with AND to get fewer results & to bring topics together.  To combine the search on walking aids with the topic of hip fracture, you need to combine the two searches with an AND.  In PubMed, it can look like: 

#4    Search #1 AND #2 Limits: English
#3    Search #1 AND #2       
#2    Search hip fracture
#1    Search walkers OR canes OR crutches OR walking aid        


You can also type it out in one line like this:   (walkers OR canes OR crutches OR walking aid) AND hip fracture

Note:  if you search walking aids in the plural, PubMed will translate 'aids' to the disease 'acquired immunodeficiency syndrome'

What does Boolean mean?   George Boole was a mathematician who had the happy thought that you can combine sets with AND, OR, NOT.  Boolean Logic is named after him.  Simple as that.

Subject Terms & Keywords

Spell out terms.  Typing STM into PubMed won't get you articles on short term memory – PubMed doesn’t figure out the acronym.   However, if you type out short term memory, PubMed will find the MeSH (medical subject term) 'Memory, short-term' plus textwords. The same goes for OT.  So, for better results when searching on abbreviations & acronyms, type 'em out.

Use available subject terms.   In PubMed, for example, searching 'memory loss' takes you to 'Memory Disorders' as a MeSH term.  This usually gets you more results and also allows you to use the Explode feature. 
Explode when using subject terms.   If you look at the MeSH term 'Memory Disorders' in the MeSH database, you’ll see that there are more terms indented underneath.   PubMed automatically includes these terms in your search.   That is, the term 'Memory Disorder' is exploded to include the more specific terms.   
In the case of 'Memory Disorders' exploding gets you 5 more MeSH terms.  This similar to getting 5 more file folders of articles which are NOT included in the broader term Memory Disorders.
              Memory Disorders
                              Amnesia, Anterograde
                              Amnesia, Retrograde
                              Amnesia, Transient Global
               Korsakoff Syndrome


 Look for additional terms to search on in titles, abstracts, assigned subject terms, and full text of articles.  You might find that there are additional terms that you can search on. In the walking aids example above, other terms are: canes, crutches, walkers.   Not everyone in a specific specialty or field uses the same terms when writing up articles. Trick is to find the terms that they do use.    Once you find the terms, re-do the search. This is another reason why I break my searches in to separate topics. I can then mix and match them without having to retype everything.

Check the subject terms used by the database/search engine you are in.  Each one has a different focus and therefore, might use a different term for the same idea. You can also use this as a way to find additional terms that you can add into your search.

Citation Searching - Keep Those Older Articles!

You can find good articles by looking at References and Cited by.  

References are the articles and documents listed in an article's bibliography or reference list.  This will take you into the past, to older articles.   

You can travel to the future by looking at Citing articles or Cited by links in search engines such as CINAHL, Scopus, or Google Scholar. Say you have an article from 2010 and you want something more current. You can search it by title in Scopus.  If the article is found, check to see if there is a  number on the far right under the Cited column.  Clicking on that number will take you to the more current articles that used the original one in their footnote section.

Note, citation searching is some times called ancestry searching.