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SOCW 511: Introduction to Social Work

This guide is designed to help introduce research skills for social workers.

Scoping your Research

Review your assignment, and ask yourself:

  • How many resources do you need to find? e.g. one, ten or more, etc.
  • What types of resources do you need to find? e.g. articles, books, grey literature
  • Do the resources need to be from a certain time period? e.g. from the past ten years

... and more! This list of questions can be lengthy - just remember to make sure you understand all the aspects of your assignment before starting. 

Search Terms

Developing Search Terms includes considering the following areas:

Keywords 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
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


Variant Spellings e.g. behavioral vs. behavioural

Thesauri will be the best way to find many of the above. Most databases contain a unique thesaurus that applies to how they have grouped information. 

Boolean Logic


  • 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


  • 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

Command Line Searching

‚ÄčAlong with Boolean searching you must pay attention to using brackets to separate the different parts of your search.

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


Limiters that you may consider using to focus your search include. Remember less is more - as limiters are not always uniformly applied to all of the contents of a database. 

Date Range e.g. the past 10 years, a specific range, or all dates
Age Groups e.g. adolescent may be 11-18 or 13-19, depending on the database
Type of Study e.g. qualitative, quantitative
Type of Resource e.g. articles only


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

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

e.g. child* = child, children, childhood

Phrase Searching

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"

NOTE - don't force phrases, if they aren't common phrases in the literature than resources may not be found

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