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SOCW 553: Research Knowledge and Evidence in Clinical Social Work Practice

Overview of evidence-based practice, literature review/systematic review workflows, and citation management for your written EBP assignment.

What is in a Search Strategy?

Your search strategy is meant to mirror your choice in databases - trying to be as thorough as possible. 

The elements of your search strategy are as follows:

  • Search terms
  • How you will tell the system to interpret your terms - as single words, as phrases, as subject headings, using adjacent or near searching, etc.
  • How you will combine them - AND's and OR's
  • How you will limit to what you want - based on available limiters and eligibility criteria

Crafting a clear but advanced search strategy is an art unto itself. You need to make sure you are building something that is broad enough to capture all of the elements of your question, but isn't including terminology that will lead or bias the findings in the literature (which is why the outcome of your question is often not searched). 

Remember you get one shot at this - once you have your search, you won't edit it further once you are in the databases. 

Search Terms

Developing Search Terms includes considering the following areas:


Normally free-text terms/phrases that you generate on your own without using database-driven terms

Subject Headings

Terms/phrases that databases use to create standardized groupings for similar research

e.g. "sense of community" in PsycINFO

Preferred Terms

Similar to subject headings, databases will often tell you if a term now has a preferred or alternative term/phrase you should be using.

e.g. "post-traumatic stress disorder" ---> "posttraumatic stress" (APA PsycInfo)


It is best to plan for all of the synonyms you can think of before you start searching.

e.g. homeless ---> "without a home" OR "no fixed address" OR roofless


Synonyms can also include historical words used for your keywords or phrases that might still come up in your results.

e.g. "acceptance and commitment therapy" ---> "comprehensive distancing" 

Acronyms e.g. "cognitive behavioural therapy" ---> CBT

e.g. "caesarean section" --> c-section

Variant Spellings e.g. behavioral vs. behavioural

There are a few things that might help with keyword brainstorming: 

Search Tips


  • Used to limit/narrow your search
  • Used in combining terms and/or phrases together to form a more sophisticated search
  • e.g. "social work" AND family


  • Used to broaden your search
  • Used most in combining synonyms or similar terms to ensure that one or the other is in your result
  • e.g. "cognitive behavioural therapy" OR CBT

NOT - not suggested to use

  • Used to limit/narrow your search
  • Used to filter out terms/phrases/subjects that are not similar to the topic of your question, thus not applicable
  • NOTE: this may remove some research that is still applicable if it also discusses your topic in addition to the wrong one
  • e.g. "cognitive behavioural therapy" NOT depression

Phrase searching entails using quotation marks around any piece of your search where more than one word needs to stay together.

E.g. "social work", "bipolar disorder"

Don't force phrases, if they aren't common phrases in the literature then resources may not be found. See Proximity tips for better alternatives. 

E.g. "drug intervention" could actually be "X drug was used as the intervention to Y"

Using truncation in your search can help to bring back alternative endings to your search term.

To truncate a single word you use the root of the word - adding a * at the end.

For example: mentor* ---> mentor, mentors, mentorship, mentoring

You can also include the star on the end of a phrase in most databases now - but if it isn't working the way you think it should, then spell out all phrases associated instead. 

For example: "social work*" ---> social work, social worker, social workers

EBSCO databases

  • Near Operator (N) - finds a word near another word, regardless of the order the words may appear in. For example: secondary N3 school -- will search for the words secondary and school within three words of each other, but either one can come first -- such as "school for secondary students". 
  • Within Operator (W) - finds a word within a range of another word, in the exact order you enter them in. For example: secondary W3 school -- will search for the words secondary and school in that order and they must be within three words of each other -- so it will not find "school for secondary students" and will only locate "secondary school". 

For more on using these in EBSCO databases, check out their blog post

ProQuest databases

  • Near Operator (NEAR/n) - finds terms separated by a certain number of words in any order. It can be paired with a specific number - e.g. NEAR/3
  • Pre Operator (PRE/n) - finds terms separated by a certain number of words in a specific order (as entered). It can be paired with a specific number - e.g. PRE/4

For more on using these in ProQuest databases, check out their libguide

Ovid databases

  • Adjacent Operator (ADJn) - finds terms within a specified number of spaces between each other - e.g. decrease ADJ8 depression

For more on using these in Ovid databases, check out Tuft's Ovid Medline libguide

Once you have all of the elements of your search brainstormed, then you can start to think about putting them together into what we call a "command line search." 

We use command line searches to make things easier when we are copying and pasting our searches into the databases - by pre-building them it saves time down the road. 

e.g. ("cognitive behavioural therapy" OR CBT) AND (anxiet* OR depress*) AND (youth OR teen* OR adolescent*)


For systematic reviews, dates are often left open-ended unless otherwise necessary. Most databases allow for you to select the publication year range to limit your results. 

For your assignment, the date range is one good way to limit the amount of results to ensure you have enough time to complete your project during the course. You may want to focus on the past 10 years or even 5 years to ensure you aren't being bombarded by results. 

Whether you use the peer-reviewed limiter in your search will depend on the type of literature you are seeking. If you are looking to include grey literature, book chapters, theses/dissertations, magazine, etc. in your review, then a peer-review limiter may exclude any and all of these. Only use the peer-reviewed limiter when you are focusing on academic studies that were published in peer-reviewed journals. 

Note: the peer-review limiter is pulling all items published in peer-reviewed journals, including editorials and obituaries. You may need to remove these during the screening stage of your review as you find them. 

Note: some databases do not have a peer-reviewed limiter and you may need to assess peer-review status when reviewing the full-text of an article.

Since grey literature is not part of your core search for studies to synthesize, you'll want to use the peer-review limiter for your assignment. 

Many databases do not have this limiter, and those that do, often don't match in the ages that they group together. 

For example: adolescents may be 12-19 in one and 13-17 in another. 

You'll also want to choose whether to use age as a limiter or as search terms. 

For example: you may find additional or more qualified studies using search terms for children rather than relying on the age limiter to have been applied correctly to each study. 

Often in systematic reviews you will want to specify the study types to include in your review - this is done so that inferences and conclusions can be made based on studies that were conducted in the same or similar ways. 

For your assignment, you'll need to use both qualitative and quantitative studies, so this will probably remain untouched for your group. 

Language is always important when considering how you will limit the scope of your review. In formal systematic reviews, limiting only to English can bias the results found, since much research takes place and is published in non-English language speaking countries.

It is suggested instead to utilize the language skills of your review team, and lean on translation services when needed. 

Understandably though, there will be times when this is not feasible and a review may need to be limited to a specific language(s). This should always be discussed in your limitations if you limit the research you are synthesizing. 

For your assignment, it may be the case that all members of your group can only read and speak English. You should consult with your section's Professor to ensure they are comfortable with you using alternative language articles when translations can be provided. 

Some systematic reviews will choose to search only for their search terms in the title and/or abstract of the results. This is seen as a way to ensure that the an article's main purpose matches your search terms - in other words, if your search terms show up in the title or abstract, then the study has a higher probability of being related to your topic. 

It does have its drawbacks though - as many abstracts are poorly written, and some not included in databases. This is why some researchers still strongly oppose limiting in this way. 

You'll often have the option next to the search box to select Title only, Title & Abstract, or Abstract only.

For your assignment, you may be tempted to try and use this option to cut down on the amount of results being returned on your topic. But do try it with and without before committing to one specific direction.