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Course & Subject Guides

Social Work Research Methods - Oakland Campus: The Search Process

This guide is designed for students in Introduction to Social Work Reseach SOCWRK 1020.

1. State Your Research Topic

The first step in the research process is to clearly state your research question.  Try to state the question in a neutral way; you'll want to examine the question from all sides.

For this example, let's take a look at this question:

"Does a child's diet have an influence on his or her behavior?"

2. Choose Strong Keywords

Don't type a question into a database or search engine.  Instead, try to identify the words in your research question that are most likely to appear in books or articles about the topic.

To do this, take a look at your question and start to eliminate common words, often articles, conjunctions, and prepositions.  You're looking for the words that get to the heart of what you're researching.

So, for our question:

"Does a child's diet have an influence on his or her behavior?"

find the words that define the question:

"Does a child's diet have an influence on his or her behavior?"

3. Brainstorm Additional Keywords

A search engine or database does its best to use your search terms to bring up relevant materials, but you can help it by trying to anticipate variations of your keywords that might turn up in articles, books, etc. that are related to your topic.

Brainstorm other words - synonyms, related terms, broader terms, narrower terms - that might appear in books, articles, etc. that would be useful in your research.

Using our example:

child - children, youth, person

diet - nutrition, food, health, breakfast, lunch

behavior - attitude, conduct, discipline, participation

4. Test Your Keywords, Evaluate Results, and Repeat Steps 1-3 as Needed

Having prepared your search terms, you can now test them out in a database or search engine.  Try different combinations of your keywords that you believe will yield good search results.

To combine terms, use "AND" if you want to only see books, articles, etc. in which both terms appear.  Use "OR" to find items in which either term appears.  AND will give you fewer results; OR will give you more.

Most search engines, including PittCat, automatically use AND to connect terms, so you only need to type OR if you intend to use it.

Many article databases such as Social Work Abstracts allow you to use the Advanced Search screen to put search terms in different search boxes and combine them with AND and OR using drop-down menus next to the boxes.


It is important to try all of your search terms, evaluate your search results and, if necessary, go back to Step 1 to revise your search.

Please don't be discouraged if you don't get any good results at first.  All researchers, even professors and librarians who do this for a living, must often go back and revise search questions and keywords in order to get good results.


Searching Strategy Worksheet

Evaluating a Resource

Information Search Worksheet