Skip to Main Content

Gerstein Science Information Centre

Public Health

This guide was created to assist Public Health students with research using library resources and also grey literature.


Once you have identified the main concepts in your search question, the next step is searching comprehensively is to identify synonyms for each of your concept. What are all the ways authors might express the concepts you're interested in?

The only way to find key outliers in the literature is to think of all the ways authors might describe your concept-- without going beyond the scope of how you've defined them. How will you find this balance? 

Operationalize your Concepts: Think Broadly and Abstractly!

There are many types of synonyms to consider when generating synonyms for your search strategy: 

Terms that have the same/close meaning:

  • Hypertension
  • High blood pressure

Terms that have different spellings or acronyms:

  • Leukemia
  • Leukaemia


  • SIDS
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Complex concepts described inconsistently:

  • Long-term patient-reported satisfaction after contralateral prophylactic mastectomy…
  • Quality of life following various surgeries of body manipulation, including mastectomy…
  • Surviving breast cancer: women’s experiences with their changed bodies…

Umbrella terms and specific names:

  • Sexually-transmitted infections
  • Herpes, genital warts, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, etc…

Keywords and database-specific “subject headings”:

  • Cancer, tumor, tumour, carcinoma
  • Neoplasms (MeSH)

Discipline-specific jargon and surrogate terms: 

  • Occupational Justice
  • Unemployment, underemployed

Tricks for finding or "mining" synonyms

Background Reading

Is your search term or concept called anything else? Look it up in an encyclopedia to find out.

For example, in the wikipedia entry for "hypertension," the synonym high blood pressure is quickly identified in the opening sentence. This is true for most wikipedia entries for scientific and medical terminology. It is wikipedia, so exercise caution when using this as a background reading source.

You can also easily find synonyms in other background sources, including your lecture notes, as well as textbooks and print encyclopedias (yes! they still exist!) which you can find via the library catalogue.

Background sources can also help you find umbrella terms and specific terms, as well as provide you with the kind of contextual information on a topic that always comes in handy when you're searching!

Ask a Generative AI Chatbot

Try prompting a chatbot like ChatGPT to provide synonyms for your search term. Chatbots can be pretty overconfident, so exercise caution and never assume it's correct and/or found everything. A couple example prompts: 

  • Can you provide an exhaustive list of synonyms for "international student"?
  • Can you list all the types of chemotherapy drugs? 
  • What are all the ways people might refer to the idea of "occupation"? 

Mine Relevant Articles for Synonyms

Gather a set of relevant articles you've collected already. Re-read the titles and abstracts and circle/highlight/note all the words the authors refer to the concepts in your question. Check out the below example to see how just one abstract provides over 8 synonyms for the idea of 'exercise'. 

Image of abstract from PubMed highlighting various synonyms for exercise

Mine Relevant Articles for "Subject Headings"

Let's say you have a relevant article on a topic. You could have this before you start a search, or it could come from early first attempts at searching, or maybe it's from your reading list.

You can find out how this article is indexed in controlled vocabulary databases by searching for it by title in Medline or CINAHL and opening the article's complete record. In CINAHL, the subject headings will be listed as Major and Minor subjects; in Medline they will be listed under MeSH Subject Headings.

"Used For" terms in controlled vocabulary databases

Look at a MeSH subject heading's scope note to check its used for terms. For instance, the used for MeSH term for 'cancer' is 'neoplasm'. 



This work is openly licensed via CC BY-NC-SA 4.0For information on this guide contact Erica Nekolaichuk, Faculty Liaison & Instruction Librarian at the Gerstein Science Information Centre.