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How to Search in the Health Sciences: Search Strategy

Coming up with search terms

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Search/Concept Maps make for better searching

  • A search/concept map is a good way to organize your search
  • A map consists of a series of columns
  • Each column is used for the individual concepts identified in your search question
  • List terms and phrases that reflect that concept in the column
  • Be careful of having too many columns, search maps with more than 3 columns usually yield too few results 
Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3

terms and phrases that 

reflect concept 1


terms and phrases that 

reflect concept 2

terms and phrases that 

reflect concept 3

Develop your strategy with a Search Map

  • A search map is a great tool to help you build a search
  • It helps you organize your search as well as how to use Boolean Operators correctly
  • Within a column, the terms and phrases that reflect your concept, you use OR
  • When you combine different columns you use AND

Example: What is the risk of mortality due to cell phone use in distracted teen drivers?









"cell phone"


"cell phones"


"cellular phone"


"cellular phones"


"mobile phones"


"mobile phone"









"distracted driver"


"distracted drivers"


"driving while distracted"


"inattentive driving"

 The asterisk at the end of some words is a wildcard which is used to find alternate endings, see Truncation for more information. 

Translate your search for an article database


  1. Search each group of synonymous concepts separately (works best for article databases)
  2. Using the search history or advanced search features, AND the search sets from Step 1
  3. Review the results


search1 = mortal* OR fatal* OR death

search2 = "cell phone" OR "cell phones" OR "cellular phone" OR "cellular phones" OR "mobile phones" OR "mobile phone" OR smartphone* OR cellphone*

search3 = "distracted driver" OR "distracted drivers" OR "driving while distracted" OR "inattentive driving"

search4 = search1 AND search2 AND search3 <------ review the results from this search



Using parentheses the search would look like this:

​(mortal* OR fatal* OR death) AND ("cell phone" OR "cell phones" OR "cellular phone" OR "cellular phones" OR "mobile phones" OR "mobile phone" OR smartphone* OR cellphone*) AND ("distracted driver" OR "distracted drivers" OR "driving while distracted" OR "inattentive driving")

PubMed Example

PubMed - Advanced Search Window - Showing Distracted Driving and Cell phone use Search Strategy

Translate your search for Online Catalogues OR Search Engines

CAUTION: Databases follow search orders exactly as you type them into the search box

Databases do not know which terms in your search are synonyms and which ones are different and will combine them in the order they are entered in search box, if you are not careful about how you do this you will not get the results you are seeking

  • First, group synonymous terms using parentheses. Use OR in between those terms, e.g. (acetaminophen OR ibuprofen OR aspirin), the database will search this as a group first before combining it with the next term or group of terms
  • When you have completed searching the synonymous terms add the results of those groups together using AND, e.g. (acetaminophen OR ibuprofen OR aspirin) AND (low back pain OR chronic back pain)

Neil John Maclean Health Sciences Library (University of Manitoba) --- ph. 204-789-3342 |