Social Work: Search Strategies

Before You Search

1. Identify your information need

For beginning your search for research articles, consider your research question and identify the key components. 

How does teenage bullying impact school performance?

  • Concept 1: Bullying
  • Concept 2: School performance
  • Concept 3/Population: Teenager

Also, consider the other criteria; for example: Do you need peer-reviewed articles? Do you need the most recent research or an overview of how the research has evolved over time? 

2. Define your terms

Do any of the concepts need to be operationalized or more focused? Remember, the variables need to be measurable in some way.  

For example, what does "school performance" mean? We'll need to decide if we want to look at academic achievement (measurable via grades, graduation rates, etc. or something captured via an instrument or survey (like strong social networks).

3. Brainstorm synonyms or related terms that might be helpful for the search

  • Concept 1: Bullying, harassment
  • Concept 2: Academic achievement, grades, high school completion
  • Concept 3/Population: Students, adolescents

Deciding Where to Search

Who cares? 

When you're ready to search for articles, the next thing to consider is "Who cares?" Research literature databases are often organized around disciplines or research areas. For example: 

Research Topic Best Article Database Other Suggested Database
Bullying in school   ERIC (Education) PsycINFO (Psychology)
Racial discrimination and drug enforcement policy Criminal Justice Abstracts (Criminal Justice) Sociological Abstracts (Sociology)
Domestic violence prevention programs Social Services Abstracts (Social Work) PsycINFO (Psychology)
Substance abuse treatment for adolescents PsycINFO (Psychology) Social Services Abstracts (Social Work)

Scope and Functionality Differences

venn diagram overlap of citations in social services abstracts, psycinfo, and google scholar


Social Services Abstracts searches a defined set of resources, all focused on social work, social welfare and services, policy, and community development

  • over 1300 related journals
  • dissertations


  • Searches keyword in title, abstract, and other record fields
  • Can use subject headings to search
  • Publication date limit
  • Results ranked by publication date (newest first)

PsycINFO searches a defined set of resources, all focused in the field of psychology

  • almost 2500 journals (99% peer reviewed)
  • book chapters
  • dissertations


  • Searches keyword in title, abstract, and other record fields
  • Can use subject headings to search
  • Publication date limit
  • Methods, age group limits available
  • Results ranked by publication date (newest first)

Google Scholar searches across resources from all disciplines/subject areas:

  • journals publisher websites
  • professional association websites
  • university websites
  • Google Books


  • Searches the full text of the article for keywords
  • No subject headings  
  • Publication date limit  
  • No limits for research methodology, study population age group
  • Results ranked by combination of times cited and Google algorithm

Brainstorming Keywords

Before you start searching for resources, take a few moments to think of the relevant terms that you might want to search with. This will help you build and revise your search.

Follow the Citations

Another valuable way to find related articles is to utilize the references and "cited by"s of any article you already have. Article authors have done a literature review, and so they have identified more articles on the topic for you. 

Also, after an article has been published, other authors working in the same research are likely to cite it in their literature review. Most databases will display a "cited by" link to other articles. For example: