Research for Thesis & Dissertation Literature Reviews: Search Strategies

Boolean Searching

Most every database relies upon Boolean searching. It is a structured means of creating a search "equation."

  • Using AND between terms tells the database to find both terms in the same record
  • OR means that you want the database to find any of the terms
  • NOT means you do not want to retrieve records with a particular term

These three operators allow you to create complex queries that search for each component of your topic, while still allowing to search for synonyms or related terms to any or all of those components. 

graphic describing AND, OR, NOT functions

Keyword vs. Subject Heading Searching

Disciplinary databases often have subject headings (a set of official terms used to describe something). For example, the American Psychological Association Thesaurus is a list of subject heading terms that are assigned to items indexed in the PsycINFO database. Subject heading searching can improve the relevance of your search results since other items in the database about that same thing will have the same subject heading. 

Multidisciplinary databases like Web of Science do not have subject headings and must be searched with keywords. 


  • good initial strategy
  • must perform searches with synonymous words/terms
  • more likely to have irrelevant results

Subject Headings

  • standardized words or phrases used to categorize literature
  • relevant results much more likely
  • subject headings not consistent across databases

Annual Reviews

Annual Reviews articles:

  • Capture current understanding of a topic, including what is well supported and what is controversial;
  • Set the work in historical context;
  • Highlight the major questions that remain to be addressed and the likely course of research in upcoming years; and
  • Outline the practical applications and general significance of research to society.

Find Literature Review Articles

Literature review articles can be very helpful in providing background information for your research.

In order to find these articles quickly, add "Literature Review" OR "Review of the Literature" as a title field search in the database. 


Or, if available, select the research methodology limit for "literature review". 

literature review limit in psycinfo

References & Citation Searching

Aside from searching databases by topic, another very important way of discovering research is using the reference list of articles and seeing who else has cited the article. How many times an article has been cited can tell you not only how influential an article has been, but can lead you to more articles on your topic. 

one article leads to references and cited bys