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RN to BSN Program Library Research Guide

Designed to assist undergraduate nursing students find high quality information for their papers and projects.

In Google you can type in, "What's the weather like in New York City this weekend?" and receive the answer. In library databases, you need to boil down your inquiry to the nouns and noun phrases that capture your concepts, like New York City AND weekend AND weather 

For example, if you are doing research within a database (perhaps CINAHL) on patient care in nursing homes and the long-term affects of poor care on the residents, you do not want to type in that ENTIRE sentence. Really you are looking for the meat of your sandwich:  ​nursing homes AND patient care AND elderly

Once you have the meat, you can then start to put together a search strategy as shown below. You should consider using synonyms as well. Perhaps other authors refer to dogs as canines in their article or specifically the breed German Shepherd. You want to make sure you get ALL of the relevant possibilities for your research. The following pro tips will help you do this.

Use 'AND, OR, NOT'

These three words (also known as 'Boolean operators') -- AND, OR, NOT -- perform a special function in library databases when used in a search statement and will help you either broaden your search results or narrow the results, depending on what you need. This graphic shows how they work:

​To sum up --

  • AND - looks for ALL the terms in your search, in any order. It is the default for most databases. If you don't type  AND in between your terms, the database will automatically do it.
  • OR - looks for ANY of the terms in your search. It is used to group synonyms together. Normally when you have a single search box, you  put the synonyms within parentheses, e.g. (adolescents OR teenagers OR youth). If you have multiple search lines, you can put the synonymous terms altogether on one line.
  • NOT - will exclude certain terms, and is normally used at the end of a search statement. For example, pharmaceuticals NOT illegal. ​Use this operator with care, because it may exclude some relevant sources.

Using the Boolean operators AND and OR from the previous nursing example, my search might look something like this:

Nursing Home AND (Patient Care OR Long-term Care) AND (Elderly OR Aged OR Geriatric):


Use Database Filters

Another way to make your search results more relevant is to apply database filters on the results page. For example, the CINAHL database (in EBSCOhost) has filters for age, inpatient or outpatient, male or female, and so on, that can be applied to your results. These filters are viewable in the EBSCO databases by clicking on the link to Show More, under the date slider bar:

Usually you'll select Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals and English Language:

Consider using limiters to replace some search terms. For example, rather than type in all the search terms for ​Elderly​, you can apply the Age Groups limiter to your search results:

You can always see what terms you've used and what limiters have been applied under ​Current Search. And you can always remove them if they are too limiting:

Use Subject Terms

At some point, you will be asked to write on or explore a topic that is more in-depth and thus will require a more comprehensive search. This can be a big task. Where do you begin?

  1. Start with a matrix like the one below to keep your thoughts organized. On the left write your original concepts
  2. Next, see if the database you're using (for example, PubMed) has a thesaurus/subject heading database built within it. (for example, MeSH is the thesaurus found in PubMed). Do this to understand how your term will be interpreted and if you agree. In the case of patient care, you may choose to include long-term care or nursing care depending on the angle of your topic. (Again, see below)
  3. The last column is designed for words that are not included in MeSH terminology or other synonyms in which your concept could be referred to in the literature. A great example is the Elderly concept. Perhaps authors used the term Senior Citizen or Senior because it made more sense for their context. You may want to include these other words using OR in your search to ensure you get all relevant material.

Summing up

Searching for articles is not always easy, but there are tricks that will help you navigate and find more relevant materials to your needs.

  1. Use AND / OR / NOT - Boolean operators
  2. Use filters to refine results (usually on the left-hand side of your search results)
  3. Find and use Subject Headings - limit by subject field or use database thesaurus, like MeSH (Medical Subject Headings in PubMed).

Search Strategy Builder

In Google you can type in a question and receive an answer. This doesn't work well when searching library databases. You need to dumb down your inquiry to short, important pieces of information.

To help you think through this process of building a good search, here's a little tool that can help you construct effective searches for Search Everything, many article databases, PILOT (the catalog) and more. Developed by Ohio State University, it's called Search Strategy Builder.

Just click on the link, fill in the blanks, and click the button to create a Search Statement. You can then copy and paste that statement into the database of your choice.

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