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MSW 550 Course Guide

Searching for literature

Below is an example of turning a PICO question into a search strategy. Review the next tab "More Search Tips" for the basics on searching in the databases. The third tab, "Database selection", will discuss the most useful databases for certain topics.


PICO question:

Does dog-assisted therapy (I) reduce symptoms of dementia (O) in older adults (P) over traditional interventions (C)?


Potential keywords:

  • Population - older adults, elderly, geriatric, aged
  • Intervention - dog-assisted therapy, canine therapy, animal-assisted therapy (broader), pet therapy (broader)
  • Comparison - treatment as usual, no treatment (alternative)
  • Outcome - symptom reduction or increased Quality of Life in dementia, Alzheimer's (related)


Potential search strategies:

1: dog therapy AND (dementia OR Alzheimer's)

2: "animal-assisted therapy" AND (dementia OR Alzheimer's)

3: (dog therapy OR canine therapy) AND (elderly OR aged OR "older adults")


Notes on search strategies:

  • The 3 strategies shown above are all slightly different and will bring up different sets of articles that may be useful for the topic. There is no one "right" search, so stay flexible and try different strategies!
  • Some databases have filters for age and gender. If this is the case, remove the keywords that reflect the age or gender and use the limiters.
  • Use quotes sparingly! They can reduce the number of results quickly, so only use quotes if you are using a known phrase in the literature.
  • Use the subject headings in the search results to find preferred terms for your topic (see example below).

Image of database results with relevant subject headings shown with a red square around them.




Tips Examples
Use keywords, not long search phrases

Instead of searching for "How effective is mirror therapy in improving motor function after a stroke?" break down your search into the main keywords:

mirror therapy, motor function, stroke,

To get more focused results:

Use quotation marks (" ") to keep phrases together

Use AND to combine different keywords

"mirror therapy" AND stroke

To get broader results:

Use OR to combine similar/associated keywords

Truncate words that have a variety of endings with a *

(motor function OR mobility) AND "mirror therapy" AND rehabilitat*


rehabilitat* includes rehabilitation, rehabilitate, rehabilitated, rehabilitating

Look for ways to limit your search in the database You can often limit by type of article (scholarly and peer-reviewed) & year of publication

Venn Diagram of Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT)

Venn diagram of boolean operators

How do we go about choosing the best place to search for our topic? I recommend searching in AT LEAST 3 different databases, including both subject-specific databases like Social Work Abstracts and PsycINFO and multidisciplinary databases like Academic Search Premier and Google Scholar CSUSM.


Multidisciplinary Databases

These are a good place to start if you're not quite sure what discipline your topic falls into.

Academic Search Premier Our most popular multidisciplinary database on campus. Covers a wide range of topics.
EBSCOhost Includes all the EBSCO databases in one search. Good to use if you're really having trouble finding articles.
Google Scholar @ CSUSM Google for academics. Be sure to evaluate what you find here, because scholarly journal articles are not the only thing housed in Scholar!

Disciplinary Databases

These are a good place to start if know what discipline your topic falls into.

Social Work Abstracts Social work and human services literature. Relatively small database.
PsycINFO Psychology literature.
ERIC Education literature. Useful for topics involving K-12 children.
CINAHL Health literature.
Social Services Abstracts Social Services literature.