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Intro to Review Literature

General strategy

You must balance being as comprehensive as possible, while staying to topic.

  • Combine controlled language with synonyms and phrase searching. Controlled language (subjects or descriptors in databases) takes time to form, so phrases researchers use don't always show up in subject searches. Boolean OR searching these terms creates large pools of information.
  • Find words that are unique to your discipline.
  • Words that take their context from other words, may need proximity searching. A word like "development" is a good example. You may want to find development near other words, but have more flexibility that with exact phrase searching.
  • Example of PsycINFO limiters including Population GroupDetermine the importance of variables to your searching. Does the age group of a population studied matter? Only need human studies and not animal studies? If so, check to see if you can use limiters. Limiters are most precise, but you can use field searching if needed.

Example (right): In PsycINFO, it would be more accurate searching to limit to a human Population Group than to include the word human in your search terms.

If you did not have the option to use a limiter, you would want to search in a Methodology or Abstract field, where the population group is most likely to be discussed.

Boolean Searching

AND, OR & NOT are Boolean search operators. You can use these words to direct a database how to search for your concept terms.


  • Creates a union search - all terms join to form one group.
  • Creates a larger set of results - broader searches
  • Works well for different spellings of the same word
  • Works well for different types or examples of the same concept

Boolean union search combinining types (sucralose OR aspartame OR saccharin)You can combine AND, OR, and NOT to build very complex searches by grouping each concept in parentheses.

(surcalose OR aspartame OR saccharin) AND headaches

You can use OR with dissimilar concepts, but watch out for the relevancy and result size. This example would need refining, but could be a useful starting point.

(cats OR dogs) AND "household pets" 



  • Combines concepts to find an area of overlap
  • Creates a smaller set of results - more narrow searches

Boolean AND search - area of overlap between artificial sweetner and headaches


  • Is an exclusionary search that can be extremely effective when combined with a field search
  • Good for eliminating false hits
  • Good for eliminating terms that may broaden the search
  • Good for eliminating the wrong types of articles

In the following example, I want to look at different types of therapy that cats and dogs are used for, but I'm not interested in therapy to remove phobias about dogs or cats. Also, I happen to know that authors Samuel and Elizabeth Corson do research on drug therapy used for aggressive animals. That would be the wrong direction, so I want to exclude their articles.

Same of Boolean searching combined with fields (subject and author)

Set searching

Set searching allows you to break apart sections of a Boolean search and recombine them. Each search you try becomes a line in a grid. At any time you can check off a box to combine lines by a Boolean command.

Brief example of set searching