Searching for information

Information searching skills are important both for your studies and your future professional life. On this page you will learn more about how to search for information in a structured and efficient way. 

Information searching can be described as a process with several steps containing the formulation of a search question, choice of search terms, searching, critical evaluation of sources, and in some cases presentation of the search strategy. Databases, search engines, library catalogues and websites are examples of resources where you can find scientific information.

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Formulating a search question

A clear and well-defined search question will make it easier to find relevant information. Search questions can be relatively simple or more complex, depending on what it is that you want to know. If you are writing a degree project or another type of lengthy essay, the search question can be formulated based on the aim and/or the research questions posed in your work. For more thorough searches you should consider the following: 

  • What is it you want to find out? Is there perhaps a special method that you want to find evidence for? What group are you interested in (patients, healthcare professionals, family members, different age groups etcetera)? Are you looking for a comparative study? 
  • What aspects of the problem or subject are interesting? Try to define the problem or specify the subject in as detailed a way as possible and formulate what it is you expect to find.This is especially important when you search for journal articles in databases that contain millions of references.
  • When you search in library catalogues to find books, reports and journals, the question or subject does not need to be so precisely specified. A book often approaches its subject from many perspectives and each chapter can describe different aspects of the same subject. Here, more general and broader search terms are needed.
  • You should also consider whether you want to find qualitative or quantitative studies. Questions are posed somewhat differently depending on what kind of study you are interested in.

Examples of quantitative questions:

How great is the difference/similarity? How common is...? What proportion of...? What factors...?

Examples of qualitative questions:

How is ... perceived? How is ... described? What process is ...? How is ... experienced?

Choosing search terms

To increase the chance of finding the information you are looking for, you have to think through which search terms to use. You should only use the most important meaning-bearing words for your searches, meaning, the topic-related terms in your research question. That means you do not need to include all the superfluous words in the question. Use the identified meaning-bearing words as a starting point in your search. In most databases the language is English.

Examples of meaning-bearing words

  • Estimating quality of life in acute venous thrombosis
  • Community nurses' work with supporting smoking cessation in the older population

Since the same concept may be described in different ways, you might have to think about synonyms and alternative terms for the meaning-bearing words. One useful way of finding a good search term is to look at the special lists of subject headings that many databases have. The purpose of the subject heading lists is to make searching easier. In the list, a specific term is selected to describe a given subject. This term is used to tag all the articles about that subject, even if the author has used a different term. If you use subject headings in your search, you will be able to find all the articles about a certain subject and you will not need to worry about whether different authors have used different words for the same thing. Using subject terms will help make your searching more systematic.

Not all databases have subject heading lists and in that case you have to use free-text searching. To search with free texts means that you search for words in the information about the article that is included in the database, that is, title, abstract and sometimes other information, such as author keywords. Be creative and try several different variants. There may for instance be some very similar terms that may all be relevant for your question. To find information about bed sores, you may need to search for bed sores, bedsores, pressure sores, pressuresores and pressure ulcers.

Examples of search terms

In the following example, we have identified the boldface words as the meaning-bearing words: Community nurses' work with supporting smoking cessation in the older ;population. We have also checked the list of subject headings in Pubmed and Cinahl to find synonyms and related search terms.

  • Examples of search words for community nurses: community health nurses, visiting nurses, home health nurses, community health nursing, nurse's role
  • Examples of search words for smoking cessation: smoking cessation, smoking prevention, giving up smoking, quitting smoking
  • Examples of search words for older population: old, aged, elderly, 80+

Finding resources

You can find information through databases, search engines, library catalogues and web sites. Topic, type of publication and date of publication decides where you are going to search. Scientific articles can be found in bibliographic databases. If you are writing a degree project or a master's thesis you have to use the subject specific databases when searching for information.You will find the databases in KIB Finder, where they are listed in alphabetical order but can also be sorted by subject categories. This will give you an overview of which databases could be suitable for your subject area.´Books, e-books and articles can be found through the library's search tool reSEARCH. Here you can search all the material that is accessible to KI. You can also search for books in other library catalogues such as Libris.

Searching databases

Databases can be searched in slightly different ways. There is not just one correct way to search, and often, you need to do several searches in order to answer your search question. Search results will be different depending on how you have searched, that is, what search terms you used and how they were combined, and whether you used limitations with regard to type of article, age group, and so on.

The way to conduct an efficient search differs from database to database. In some databases, you can type in several search words at once (Pubmed); in others, you search for one search word at a time (Psycinfo), or write in each search term in its own search box (Cinahl). You must learn how the different databases work in order to get the best possible search result. Use the different guides (tutorials) that are found under the help menus in each databases. When you have finished a search, it is important to go through all the results in the result list, not just the first one. Often, databases sort articles chronologically, which means that the best and most relevant articles may not be listed first.

It is a good idea to learn more about some general search principles, such as combining search terms or using synonyms and truncation, which can be used in most databases. Learn more on the page Search techniques.

Presenting a search strategy

Some programmes at KI will ask you to present your search strategy in your work. You should always follow specific instructions at your programme. The search strategy should be presented in a clear and detailed way so that a fellow student or your teacher will be able to understand how you have searched. Most databases will retain your searches in the Search history, where you can see how you combined your search terms and if you have used any subheadings or filters. The Search history is a useful starting point when you want to present your search strategies. 

Test yourself - how much do you know about searching databases?

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The target group for this quiz is primarily students writing their theses. The level is based on the assumption that you have already acquired some training and knowledge in information searching, by a KIB class, for example. The questions cover the principles and general databases that are relevant to the vast majority of KI's programs.

Questions about how to find articles and other scientific sources? Ask our librarians!

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Senast uppdaterad: 
2019-04-05