Developing and refining your search

Searching does not always follow a straight line – it involves constant refinement and adjustment – especially if it’s an unfamiliar subject. Searching for a single topic can also yield a very large number of results, so it is helpful to consider if the information you want can be broken down into overlapping themes or topics.

Key terms

You may find it useful to break down your topic into key terms. For example, you might be looking for evidence on whether experiential therapies can help young people who have experienced trauma and how to use them. When searching for resources it is important to be specific. For example, if you only search for experiential therapies you might get inundated with information about all of the experiential therapies that exist. You could break this inquiry down into several smaller topics to identify your key search areas. One approach to this is to consider the Population of Interest, Outcome and Perspective (or tool) you are interested in or POP. In this case, the population of interest is young people who have experienced trauma, the outcome is the impact, and the perspective or tool is experiential therapies.

Your key search terms are likely to focus more as you progress so be prepared for them to change. Journal papers will usually provide a list of keywords used to index the article. This is particularly helpful in the early stages of a search when you are still familiarising yourself with the topic.

Narrowing or broadening your search

Now that you have identified specific key terms for your topic you can narrow or broaden your search according to how much more information you need to find. An easy way to do this is by using words like AND/OR/NOT. You might be doing this already in your searches! AND/OR/NOT are easy ways to connect and combine or exclude sets of search terms to give a result. This should result in more focused and productive results, and save you time and effort sifting through and eliminating inappropriate hits.

  • AND narrows results by requiring both terms to be in the search results.
  • OR broadens results by requiring either single or both terms to be in the search results.
  • NOT narrows the results by searching for the first term, then excluding anything with the second term.

If you want to further broaden your search, consider using synonyms or alternative words for your key terms. Different words in research may have similar meanings. For example, some resources might use synonyms of the words you’re using i.e. for children it could be: young people, young adults, teenagers, adolescents. Reading through relevant titles and abstracts (or even using a thesaurus) should give you an idea of what these are likely to be.

To further narrow your search, you can use filters. Databases and online publications usually have a filter function allowing you to limit your search results, for example, by location, date of publication, publication type, keywords or language. This can be useful if you are looking for results from a particular country or over a particular time period.

‘Snowball’ searching

If you find a relevant resource on your topic, you can search for other papers that have cited it to gather additional resources.

Each result in your Google Scholar search has a ‘cited by’ option showing other papers that have cited the article. This is particularly useful for finding more recent sources of published evidence, and can also be a quick way to establish how credible the original source of information is. Think of this as a ‘snowball’ search where you’re building your pool of sources based on what you have already found.

Most policy papers and journal articles will also include a reference list. You can use these to identify other relevant works or papers on similar topics. Google Scholar also has a ‘Related articles’ option that provides a list of other articles related or similar to the one you found.

In addition to related articles, it can also be useful to search for the author to see if they've written anything else on the topic, or to look at the journal itself for relevant articles. Journals often publish themed issues collecting different articles covering the same subject.

Remember that although you’ve developed your search strategy and keywords at the beginning of the process, searching for evidence is an ongoing and evolving process. It’s fine if your strategy changes as your knowledge on the subject develops based on the evidence you’re encountering along the way.