SW 450-550 Research & Evaluation: Search Strategies

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) Social Services Abstracts (Social Work)
Domestic violence prevention programs Social Services Abstracts (Social Work) PsycINFO (Psychology)
Substance abuse treatment for adolescents PsycINFO (Psychology) PubMed (Health Sciences)

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

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

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

Levels of Evidence

Different types of research demonstrate stronger or weaker levels of evidence, in order: 

  • practice guidelines and manuals, 
  • systematic reviews and meta-analyses
  • randomized control trials and other quantitative studies
  • qualitative studies and clinical experience

The pyramid organizes these types of research in order of strength, but also makes note of the difference in the amount of research available. For example, while systematic reviews and meta-analyses provide strong sources of evidence to answer a clinical question, there are quite a bit fewer of these resources than the more common quantitative research article. 

illustration of ebp pyramid, hierarchy of evidence

Robin A. Paynter, (2009) "Evidence-based research in the applied social sciences", Reference Services Review, 37 (4), pp.435 - 450.