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Writing Workshop: The Literature Review: Search Strategies

Developing keywords

You have considered the scope of your dissertation research and considered several facets of your research question. You can now use this analysis of your topic to plan search terms or keywords for your library searches.

Let's continue to practice this skill with our example research question:

Are there significant differences in working memory capacities between boys with autism spectrum disorder and typically developing peers and does this show a relationship between working memory capacity and level of social competence? 

Here is a visual representation how you might breakdown major facets of this question and brainstorm potential keywords for each facet. In the first row of the table, the highlights identify each facet within the written research question. Each of the five columns in the table lists alternate keywords for each facet.

Are there significant differences in working memory capacities between boys with autism spectrum disorder and typically developing peers and does this show a relationship between working memory capacity and level of social competence?
working memory boys autism spectrum disorder child development social competence

working memory

gender and autism autism Piagetian theories of development social capacity
short term memory gender and memory Asperger's syndrome brain development social deficit
executive function gender and cognitive development autistic children child cognitive development social skills
cognitive function males autistic thinking developmental neuroscience social development
metacognition young men theory of mind child psychology social cognition

Through this exercise we have brainstormed twenty-five potential search terms from one research question. For a comprehensive literature review the student would try each of these search terms in some capacity while searching for articles in the library databases.  

As you try this with your own research topic, you discover that some search terms do not return as many results as others, and it may be that you would discard some of your brainstormed terms after a few searches. However, it is worthwhile to at least test all your search ideas—and keep in mind that different search terms may work better in different library databases!

Also, some search terms may be searched alone and some may be best combined with other search terms. There are a few examples of brainstormed combinations in the examples above: "gender and autism" or "gender and cognitive development." As you brainstorm your own search terms, consider what combined searches may be appropriate. You can review strategies for combining search terms in our Keyword Searching guide

Searching multiple databases

A comprehensive seach includes delving into any possible source for relevant literature. This means that you will need to search in multiple library databases and in resources beyond the Walden Library.

To ensuring comprehensiveness:

  • Identify the databases that will cover your topic
    • Spend some time reading the descriptions of the databases in your subject area
    • Some topics cross over subject/theoretical boundaries, so you may also want to look at databases in more than one subject area
      • For example, a dissertation on self-efficacy, technology skills, and career advancement would likely include research in psychology, business, and technology databases
    • Contact the Library to get advice from a librarian on appropriate databases
    • Browse databases by subject
  • Search in more than one database, but focus on one database at a time.
    • Some of our databases are huge, containing thousands of journals, but no single database covers every journal relevant to a topic.
    • Searching in each relevant database, one at a time, gives you a better sense of control over your search, as well as a more accurate idea of the journals and databases that you've covered.
    • Using a multi-database search (such as Thoreau) is not necessarily recommended; in doing so, you lose the ability to use subject terms and search limits that may be unique to each database.

Keeping a search log

Compiling your pool of research articles is an extensive project that will go on for a considerable amount of time. To keep track of all the searches that you've already done -- and remind yourself of searches that you wish to go back to -- keep a search log.

You can create your own search log, using any software or method you choose. Think about the information you wish to keep track of. We recommend including the fields shown in this example -- but you may think of other fields as well.  

Database Search Terms Results Notes


"business culture" AND "human resources" 
limited to FT, peer review,
after 2004


"business culture" doesn't
seem to be a good search term in ABI/Inform

Business Source Complete

"business culture" AND "outsourcing"
published 2007-2012, peer reviewed


suggested terms include
"contracting out"

See another search log example.