Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

OT-610 Research Process I

Building a Search Strategy

You can save yourself some time and frustration if you plan your search strategy before you start looking for articles. What's in a search strategy?

  • A PICO(T) or focused question.
  • Search terms (keywords or subject headings)
  • Filters/Limits
  • Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria

Putting your research question into the PICO(T) format helps ensure that your question is answerable. It also provides you with the search terms and other parameters that you will need to apply in the databases. Usually, you can pull keywords directly from the PICO(T) question.

For more about subject headings, filters/limits, and exclusion criteria, see the boxes below.

Search Terms

It is important to choose your search terms/keywords carefully. Is there more than one term for the concept for which you are searching? Are you using a technical term or the layman's version? For example, if you are researching sensory integration therapy, it is also known in the literature as sensory motor integration. Likewise, when looking for articles about cultural effectiveness, you might also search cultural competence, and by only searching the former, you could miss articles that use the latter. To avoid leaving out relevant articles, use all of the possible terms for your concept:

"sensory integration" OR "sensory motor integration"

"cultural effectiveness" OR "cultural competence"

Subject Headings

Alternatively, you can search using subject headings. All databases have a list of controlled vocabulary words that seek to apply a single term to a single concept. When you use subject headings, you do not have to brainstorm all of the possible synonyms for your search term, because the database does that for you. When you enter a search term, CINAHL and Ovid are set up to automatically suggest subject headings. For instance if you search sensory integration, CINAHL will show you a list of subject headings, of which Sensory Motor Integration is the first result. Try searching with subject headings and see how your results differ from searching with just keywords.


Still unsure about subject headings? Watch this video for another explanation.

Databases & Search Engines

The following databases and search engines are all excellent tools with which to look for research articles. Tutorials for using some of these tools are available on other tabs.

Modifying an Unsuccessful Search

If you aren't happy with the list of articles your search brings back, here are some ways you might think about changing your search.

Screaming Person Logo

1. Too many articles / Articles aren't on topic

  • Make your topic more specific. Add words to describe the
    • population
    • setting
    • treatment or intervention
    • outcome
  • Make your terms more specific. For example
    • "women" becomes "women over 50"
    • "analgesic" becomes "opioid"
    • "recovery" becomes "length of stay"

2. Too few articles

  • Make your topic less specific
    • focus on the core ideas (remove unnecessary details)
    • choose less specific terms ("exercise therapy" becomes "exercise")
  • Look for different search words 
    • synonyms - brainstorm synonyms (e.g. "length of stay" = "hospital stay") or different forms of a word (e.g. therapy, therapies, therapeutic)
    • scan abstracts and subject headings to find out which words authors and databases are using to describe your topic.

Photo by Anant Nath Sharma, used with permission under a Creative Commons license