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Nursing: Search Tips & Strategies

Tips, techniques & links to help you find answers for your research papers & projects

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
  • Ancestry 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.  All of these are available off of our website either under quick links or All Resources:

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


Extrapolation is key.  Keep in mind that you may have to pull pieces of information from various articles to make your point.  You may not – probably won’t – find the perfect article that sums up your position.  (If you do find that perfect article, it actually means that you should pick another topic as someone has beaten you to the idea!)

Take notes as you go.  It’s really hard to find or document things after the fact.  (I’ve 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.  Also, 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’ve 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.  Also, when you have multiple concepts it’s easy to end up with nothing.  Start with one and add the others one at a time.  You might find that you can only use two concepts together out of three.  You might need to mix and match them in different combinations.

Combine terms with OR to get more results.   If there isn’t much on your topic, combine terms ( e.g.  subject terms & the keyword terms) with OR to find the most articles.  A search on global health in CINAHL might look like: 

MH World Health OR global health 

Combine terms with AND to get fewer results & to bring topics together.  To combine the search on global health with the topic of APNs, you need to combine the two searches with an AND.  In CINAHL, it looks like: 

S3     S1 AND S2  
S2     MH Advance Practice Nurses+  
S1    MH World Health OR global health

You can also type it out in one line like this:   (MH World Health OR global health) AND MH Advance Practice Nurses+ 

 The plus sign +  after 'nurses' means that you ‘exploded’ on Advance Practice Nurses to get all of the articles with any of those headings (see below for more on explode). 

 If you want to be really comprehensive, you can use both APN terms like so: 
      (MH World Health OR global health) AND (MH Advance Practice Nurses+ OR MH Advance Nursing Practice+)

What does Boolean mean?   George Boole was a mathmetician 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 APN into CINAHL doesn’t get much – CINAHL doesn’t figure out the acronym.   However, if you type out advanced practice nurse, you find that there are two possible subject terms you can use:

               Advanced Practice Nurses
               Advanced Nursing Practice 

Use available subject terms.   In CINAHL, for example, searching global health takes you to World Health as a subject 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 subject terms Advanced Practice Nurses and Advanced Nursing Practice, you’ll see that you can check a box labeled ‘explode.’   This will get you additional specific subjects.  In the case of APNs, it gets you the following 9 subjects.  This is like getting 9 more file folders of articles which are NOT included in the broader term Advance Nursing Practice.
               Nurse Practitioners +
Acute Care Nurse Practitioners
Adult Nurse Practitioners
Emergency Nurse Practitioners
Family Nurse Practitioners
Gerontologic Nurse Practitioners
OB-GYN Nurse Practitioners
Pediatric Nurse Practitioners +
Neonatal Nurse Practitioners

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.  For the global health example, perhaps terms such as Medically Underserved combined with a geographic location might work.  Or Public Health combined with a geographic location.   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 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, can 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.

Ancestry Searching - Don't Throw Out 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 2000 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.

Ancestry Searching