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Occupational Therapy - Dallas

Occupational therapy research guide for TWU Dallas students, faculty and staff.

Search Skills

As TWU students in the field of health science, your work will need to be based upon solid research:

image of a student drowning in articles and books.

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is an approach to medical practice intended to optimize decision making by emphasizing the use of evidence from well-designed and well-conducted research.

As future professions, you will be required to continue your professional development:

“One of the responsibilities of any professional is to maintain expertise, and this responsibility is probably nowhere more critical, or more difficult, than in the profession of medicine"

(Laine & Weinberg, 1999)

“In 1980, the biomedical literature was estimated to be expanding at a compound rate of 6% - 7% per annum, doubling every 10 to 12 years. based on an estimated rate of 200,000 biomedical publications per annum in 1979, it was determined that if clinicians read two articles per day every day for a year, by the end of the year they would be 55 centuries behind”

(Cook et al., 1996)

Therefore, as you will be stuck looking for articles anyway--learning how to search effectively now--will save you a lot of work later. 

Subject searching

                picture of a monitor providing link to a video tut             Example of a subject heading search.

Subject headings A subject heading search, also known as a controlled vocabulary search, will search for articles on a given subject rather than by looking for keywords within the text, i.e. an article will be tagged and indexed in a database as being about certain subjects. It is these subjects that are searched for.

Not all databases use the same subject heading catalog:


  • Subject heading searches are easy to run
  • All articles produced should all be about the subject you have selected
  • In theory, you should receive more pertinent, albeit fewer, results than a keyword search. 


  • Subject heading searches  will not always produce the most recent literature a database has to offer
    • Because of the high volume of medical literature coming out every week, most databases, if not all, are several months behind at indexing articles. Until articles have been properly indexed they will not show up on a subject heading search. However, a keyword search will pick up articles as soon as they are uploaded to the database regardless of if they have been indexed yet or not
  • Only the bigger databases offer the utility of a subject heading search. All other databases will need to be keyword searched

Keyword search

                picture of a monitor providing link to a video tut             Example of a keyword search.

Keyword searches will look through the text of an article for whatever word/s you have specified. 


  • A keyword search will bring back up to the minute articles a they are uploaded to the database.
  • A keyword search will invariably bring back results than a subject heading search.
  • A keyword search allows for the use of Boolean operators, field searches, phrases, et cetera giving the searcher far more control over the search than an automated subject heading search.


  • More results to sift through.
  • Many of these results can be less relevant than a subject heading search.

Boolean operators

There are three Boolean operators: AND, OR, & NOT.


The AND Boolean operator will reduce the amount of results a search yields as it forces the database to be more specific. For example, here the database will only return results that feature both the terms "peanut butter" AND jelly.

TIP* If you have too many results to wade through...try using an additional search concept with AND to get a smaller, more specific, batch of results.

               AND boolean operator


OR is used to adding synonyms or alternate words to your search. By adding more synonyms to each concept you should get more results. A good rule of thumb is that OR is always more.

Here you can see that the database will bring back all articles that have either the phrase "peanut butter", or the word jelly, or both.

            OR boolean operator


The NOT  Boolean operator will purposefully exclude articles containing the specified search term/s. 

NOT can be used to narrow down the desired meaning of a term that has different connotative meanings. 

Use the NOT Boolean operator with care. You might lose the perfect article because it randomly mentioned the term you excluded. If you need to reduce the amount of results your search yields first try thinking of another search term and adding it to your search with an AND.

                            Not boolean operator

Here you can see that the database will bring back articles about "peanut butter"-- but if that article mentions jelly anywhere in the text, even randomly, the database will exclude that article from the results. 


Putting phrases in quotes can make a huge difference to your search! 

Anything over one word is technically a phrase and should be placed inside "quotation marks". The reason for this is that databases are dumb. They do not understand that multiple words are part of the same phrase unless you tell them. 

For example, if you typed peanut butter and jelly day without quotation marks the database would bring back every article with the word 'peanut' in it, every article with the word 'butter' in it, and so on...

In the example below, you can see that the phrase 'peanut butter and jelly day' was not placed in quotations and Google scholar brought back 27,100 results of which most were not pertinent. 

peanut butter google 1

In the second picture the phrase was placed in quotations and only 23 results came back, but all were pertinent.

peanut butter google 2

Warning  When you put a phrase into quotations the database will search for what's inside the quotations and ONLY what is inside the quotations. For example, a search for aspirin vs Tylenol will fail to bring back articles where the author phrased this differently, e.g. Tylenol vs Aspirin, or Aspirin versus Tylenol.

Phrases are highly specific. Be sure to consider all the different variations and make sure you include them in your search too! 

Note* Some databases, such as, Psychinfo will not accept quotation marks and will assume that everything placed between two Boolean OR statements is a phrase, e.g. OR Tylenol vs Ibuprofen OR Ibuprofen vs Tylenol


Larger databases allow users to 'limit' their search by certain criteria, hence the name limiters. 

Limiters are incredibly helpful and are usually found under the main search box or on the left hand side of the screen.


  • Allows users to narrow down search results by various criteria, useful limiters include.
    • Date range--impose a date range on the articles you want such as the last ten years.
    • Articles in English language--exclude articles in languages you may not understand.
    • Peer reviewed--make sure the articles you are reading are scholarly.
    • Study type--specify if you want systematic reviews only or randomized controlled trials et cetera


  • Limiters vary from database to database
  • Using too many limiters or poorly chosen limiters may bring back few results or poor quality results

              warning sign              Do not use the Full Text limiter!  It prevents you from seeing citations that might prove to be the perfect article for you. Remember you can always order articles from other libraries via our free ILL service.

Field searches

Fields, are allocated spaces within a electronic article that are set up to store a specific type of information, e.g. the author field will be where author names are stored. The title field is where the title of the article will be stored.

Field searching allows you to tell a database exactly where you want to look for your keywords. By default, the field search will be set to 'all fields' meaning that your keyword search will check everywhere within an articles text for your specified keywords.

Field searches are helpful if:

  • You can get more pertinent articles by restricting your keyword search to the 'title' field.  If the author has included your keywords in the actual title then there is a great chance that the article will be appropos to you.

  • You are looking for a specific author (author field).

  • You want to find a specific article but can only remember a word or two of the title (title field).

  • You want to pinpoint a particular subject (subject field).

  • You want articles that specifically mention your keywords in their abstract (abstract field).

  • You are looking something up by its ISBN number (ISBN field)

Example of Pubmed's fields:

example of pubmeds fields

Truncation and wildcards

Most databases will now automatically truncate words and check for variant spellings of a word.


You can add the truncation asterisk/symbol ( * ) to the root of a word and in doing so instruct the database to extrapolate all the possible endings--thereby saving you the time of entering them all in yourself. Be careful of cutting the word too short as this might open the search up to irrelevant search results.

A pictorial example demonstrating truncation.                             A pictorial example of an inefficient use of truncation.


The wildcard symbol (usually a "#" or "?") can be substituted in place of individual character/s in a term. This can be useful if you are not sure of the correct spelling of a word. However, it is mostly used to produce multiple forms of a term without having to enter that term multiple times,

                       Example: wom?n retrieves woman or women

How to get more or less results

Strategies to narrow down the number of results in a keyword search:

  • Add another concept using the 'AND' Boolean Operator. This will exponentially reduce the number of results you get back while making those results far more pertinent.
  • Reduce the number of synonyms you are using. 
  • Try a field search. For example, run a title field search. Here the database will only look for your keywords in the title of an article. If the keywords you are looking for appear in the title ...then the chances of that article being pertinent to you are high.
  • Use the 'NOT' boolean operator to select words that you do not wish to appear anywhere in the article.
  • Check your Limiters, for example
    • set a date range or reduce your date range
    • limit your results to a specific language
    • limit your results by article type, e.g. randomized controlled trials or systematic reviews

Strategies to broaden up the number of results in a keyword search:

  • 'OR' is always more. add more synonyms to your search string.
  • Reduce the number of concepts in your search string by eliminating 'AND' Boolean operators.
  • Phrases are very specific. reduce or replace phrases with single keywords if possible.
  • Check your Limiters, for example
    • extend your date range
    • limit your results to a specific language