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Cell Biology: Develop a Search Strategy

But I Know How to Google...

Using secondary sources like academic databases to search for scientific literature is not the same as searching Google for information. The most effective way to query academic research tools is to develop a search strategy. Developing a search strategy does more than help you locate articles for a paper or presentation, the process of search strategy development aides in refining your research question. 

Why Develop a Search Strategy?

1. Developing a search strategy will help you to define and refine your research question.

2. A search strategy will save you time.

3. A search strategy can make your research path reproducible and understandable.

4.  Developing a search strategy is an iterative process that can inform your research and the sources you select.


Develop a Search Strategy

To develop a search strategy:

1) Identify the main concepts of your research question. These concepts become keywords for your searches.

2) Brainstorm related terms, broader terms/narrower terms and alternative spellings for each keyword

3) Combine terms using Boolean Logic.

4) Identify the tool(s) (databases, catalogs, etc.) relevant to your topic.

Biological Abstracts is a database covering life sciences and biomedical research.  The focus of Biological Abstracts matches my research area, so it is a viable tool to try my search strategy.



Types of Searching

Not all searching is the same.  As you progress through the search process you can employ different types of searching to more effectively locate information.

Keyword Searching: You will begin your search for information with keyword searching. Keyword searching is the broadest in scope of the searching methods and enables you to discover a variety of sources within your area of interest. Most databases and Google preform keyword searches by default.

Subject Searching: Once you have a defined research question or area of interest a subject search will return resources in databases and library catalogs that are grouped by the subject they address. Subject searching is a more precise way to query databases. To identify subject headings (terms used by databases and catalogs to describe literature about specific topics) to use for a subject search you can:

  • Run a keyword search
  • Browse the results; choose 2 or 3 that are relevant.
  • Look at the Subject or Descriptor field and note the terms used.

  • Re-run your search using those terms. **Be sure to select the search subject field option- usually accompanying the search bar in databases***

  • Your results will be more precise than your initial keyword search.


  • Search a database's thesaurus (the list of subject terms the database uses to describe literature) for subjects that match your research question. Look for words like "Subject Terms" or "Thesaurus" in a database's toolbar to locate the thesaurus.  You can also consult the database's help page to locate a thesaurus. 

Citation Searching (aka Citation Mining): Once you have located resources you can use them to find additional related sources. Explore the references of articles and other sources you find.  Track down sources they cite that are relevant to your research. This process allows you to locate the sources of information used by your sources of information!