10 Tips for Smarter Searching
Searching for articles on a specific topic can be daunting. These strategies will help you search library databases (including those available to APTA members via ArticleSearch at PTNow) effectively and efficiently.
1. Know your databases
Every literature database contains content on predefined subjects and sources of information. For each database you use, you need to know:
- What disciplines it covers (eg, medical, technology, sports)
- What types of publications it contains (eg, scholarly, trade, popular magazines)
- What kinds of documents it stores (eg, journal articles, books, chapters, magazines, dissertations, images)
- The time periods available (eg, 5, 10, 20 years)
- Most important, the format available (eg, citation, citation/abstract, structured abstract, full text)
For example, the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews covers health care, contains systematic reviews and protocols, includes scholarly research, provides only current reviews (no archive of outdated material), and is completely full text.
2. Place quotation marks around phrases in your search string
Looking for a specific phrase or name? Place quotation marks (" ") around the phrase you want searched: "pediatric physical therapy," "Helen Hislop," etc.
You will search with more precision and your results will contain articles with the words in the exact order you specified.
3. Instead of sentences, use "AND"
Instead of sentences, use AND (in capital letters) to combine keywords and phrases: torticollis AND "physical therapy" AND infant.
Unlike Google and some other search engines, if you type an entire sentence in your search field (eg, "strength training improves knee flexion for adolescent athletes with knee instability"), you won't get the results you're looking for.
Instead, pick out key phrases, words, and concepts using the PICO format: Patient + Intervention + Comparison + Outcome.
For the knee flexion example, use a search string similar to: adolescent AND strength training AND increased knee flexion.
If you type several words without the AND in between, some databases will assume you want only results where those words are adjacent to each other. To tell the database what you want, use AND.
4. To expand results, use "OR"
Use OR, in capital letters, to expand your search results.
The searching operator OR lets you expand your search results by locating all of the records that contain at least 1 of the specified keywords or subject terms. This method works well with synonyms (eg, elderly OR aged).
When using the OR operator and other search terms, use a set of parentheses to group your terms: (elderly OR aged OR older adults) AND fatigue AND exercise.
5. Use truncation to pull up all word variations of your topic
Place the truncation symbol (usually an asterisk) at the last most common letter: iontophore* (for iontophore, iontophoretic, iontophoresis, etc), physiotherap* (for physiotherapy, physiotherapist, physiotherapists, etc).
If you shorten the root word too much, you may bring up irrelevant items. In our "physiotherapy" example above, truncating the word at the "o" would produce results for physiotherapy, but also for physiology, physiopathology, and physiological, among others.
6. Field searching (or advanced searching) helps you retrieve precise results
When you enter search terms, most databases automatically use keyword searching. That is, they find matches for your terms in any field (eg, title, author, source, author affiliation, full article text, etc) of an article's record. The end result is that you typically retrieve more information, but with less precision.
To search more efficiently, try field searching. Search for authors using the author field, unique words in a title or the entire title. Remember to use quotations (Tip #2) in the title field and include major concept words in the abstract field only (as opposed to anywhere in an article). This leads us to...
7. Find out if the database you are using has a "subject search" option
Not sure which words to use in a search? For some topics, subject searching (ie, using terms from a predefined list) works better than keyword or freestyle searching. Subject searching may produce fewer results, but you will search with more precision. How do you find these subject lists?
- In PubMed, click on MeSH (Medical Subject Headings).
- In CINAHL Complete (Cumulative Index to Nursing & Allied Health Literature), click on CINAHL Headings in the blue ribbon at the top of the screen.
- In SPORTDiscus, click on Thesaurus in the blue ribbon at the top of the screen.
Another way to discover subject headings-also called descriptors or major concepts-is to check the terms assigned to articles obtained from a keyword search. Usually, the subject headings will appear either above or below the article text.
8. Don't limit yourself to the first set of results; revise terms and database selections
The same search phrase entered in 2 different databases may pull up very different results. If your topic encompasses more than 1 major subject area, such as exercise and nutrition, try searching both a sports medicine database like SPORTDiscus and a health database like CINAHL Complete.
Too many articles in your results? Be more precise in your search terms. Use "muscle stretching" OR "resistance training" instead of the broader term "exercise."
Too few results? Expand the scope of your search terms. Use the broader concept of "upper extremity" instead of "shoulder."
Keep reworking your search string until your results get you the research you want.
9. Include indexes and extracting services in searches
Even though they don't always offer full-text access, indexes and abstracting services like MEDLINE and Cochrane Controlled Trials Register can be a comprehensive source for your topic. At minimum, you'll be able to pull up the citation and abstract.
In PTNow's ArticleSearch, the indexes and extracting services are CINAHL Complete (some full text), Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (CENTRAL), Cochrane Methodology Register, Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, Health Technology Assessments, and NHS Economic Evaluation Database.
An extracting service for physical therapy literature is The George Institute for Global Health's Physiotherapy Evidence Database (PEDro), which provides extracts for selected intervention articles. The site provides defined research data from each article reviewed, but not the entire content of the article reviewed.
10. Take advantage of special features offered by the database
Most literature databases offer time-saving features to help you keep current on research important to you:
- Searching inside 1 periodical or across all periodicals in the database
- A personal folder for saving search results, alerts, and more (requires a free account creation and log-in)
- Alerts and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to track new research on your favorite topic or publications by a selected researcher, table of contents, etc.
- Style guide selection (AMA, APA, Chicago, etc) for outputting your citations
- Functions for importing citations into your own bibliographic software, such as EndNote, RefWorks, or ProCite
Ask your PTNow librarian if you have questions!
Your PTNow Librarian can save you time and help you find better information more efficiently. Email your questions for the quickest response.
Common questions include: Which database is the best to use for a given topic? How do I search for a particular researcher? How do I track new research? Why am I seeing a login screen? Where can I obtain the full text of an article? I'm getting irrelevant articles in my results; how do I improve my search?