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Gerstein Science Information Centre

Nutritional Sciences Resources

Getting Started with Searching

This page is meant to guide you as your create your search strategy. For more in-depth information, please visit our Guide to Comprehensive Searching in the Health Sciences.

Creating a Search Question

It's important to have a focused research question. Concept mapping or using a question formula can help you clarify and focus your question once you have your general topic decided upon. 


There are many question formulas that might help you! Here are just a few.


P Population: Who are you interested in learning about?
Intervention: What treatment or variable are you looking at (i.e. a specific supplement)
Comparison [optional]: Is there an alternative intervention that you are comparing?
Outcome [optional]: Is there a desired outcome to this intervention? 
P Patient or problem or population: Who are you interested in learning about?
Intervention or issue: What treatment or variable are you looking at (i.e. a specific supplement)
Evaluation or effect: What are you trying to measure, and how?
S Sample: Who are you interested in learning about?
Phenomenon of Interest: What behaviour/ experience do you wish to learn about?
Design: What type of study design are you interested in looking at?
Evaluation: What outcome measures do you wish to explore?
Research Type: Are you interested in qualitative methods? Quantitative methods? Both?


If you are interested in learning about correlations between mothers' stress levels and their children's eating habits, you might structure a question using one of the question formulas:

What is the relationship between maternal exposure to stress during pregnancy [intervention] and children’s food preferences and diet [evaluation] in a population of low socioeconomic status people [population]?

Boolean Operators and Truncation

Boolean Operators help to specify inclusion and define how the terms within your search relate to one another.

The three most popular Boolean operators are AND, OR, and NOT.

three venn diagrams, first with center filled in and the word 'AND' written; middle all filled in, with word 'OR' written; final with left side filled in, and 'NOT' written.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               




The top image shows that when you search for "mothers" AND "stress", you will be given only results that include BOTH words.





The middle image shows that when you search for "mothers" OR "stress", you will be given all results that includes EITHER words.





The bottom image shows that when you search for "mothers" NOT "stress", you will be given all results that include "mother" EXCEPT FOR papers that also include the word "stress." 





Truncation is useful for finding variations of a base word, and is represented by the *. For example:

mother* will return results that have the words: mother, mothers,  mothering.

Be careful not to truncate too early! If you were to search food*, for example, you would receive all results that contain: food, foods, foodstuff, foodlessness, foodie, and so on.

Generating Synonyms

Operationalizing your concepts, or determining synonyms, is important because different researchers may use different terminology to refer to the same things. You may find it useful to create a chart:

low socioeconomic status   maternal stress   children's diet
OR   OR   OR
poor AND mother's stress AND children's food preference
OR   OR   OR
working class   maternal anxiety   youth nutrition

You may even notice while operationalizing that your terms could use further refinement. In this case: what do we mean by "stress"? Are we referring to acute stress? Episodic? Chronic? Similarly: when we speak of children, are we interested in only a specific age group? Could youth, adolescents, and teenagers fit within the parameters of our search? Continue operationalizing and refining until you have a focused search to bring to your database.