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Basic Library Instruction: Search Strategy

Resources to support your ideas, papers and projects: f you are viewing this guide, your professor has probably given you a research assignment. When doing research in college, you professor will specify that you use scholarly journals, academic journals

Planning Your Research


Planning your research saves you time.

Translating your research topic into a "PICO" question will help you figure out how to search for your topic in a database. The first step is figuring out search terms for your Population/Problem, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome.


Using the PICO Format

P  Patient, Population, or Problem of Interest


I   Intervention, Exposure, Prognostic Factor (treatment, diagnostic test, risk factor, etc.)


C Comparison (implicit or explicit)


Outcome of interest (positive or negative)


You are working with a third grade class with a high rate of obesity and many students at risk for type 2 diabetes. You want to incorporate regular exercise into their daily schedule but you need to be able to justify starting an after-school physical activity program to the school administration.

This is a HOW question - you are looking for a solution to a problem.


 How will daily exercise decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes in elementary students?


For more information about PICO check out this tutorial: PICO:Research Questions for the Health Sciences!



Role of the 5 W's



Who, What, When, Where, Why (and How)

Researchers in most fields are looking for one of two things:

  • A cause for a problem (Why) or
  • a solution to a problem (How).

The Why or the How then becomes the I element of the PICO formula.

The P element of the PICO formula is typically the Who or the What


Subject vs Keyword Searching

Put your topic in the form of a question

Putting your topic in the form of a question will help you focus on what type of information you want to collect:  who, what, where, why and how.

Writing a one sentence research question will help you narrow your search and focus your topic.

Narrow your search by using limiters.  You may limit:

by the  geographical area:

Example: What environmental issues are most important in the Southwestern United States?

by culture:

Example: How does the environment fit into the Navajo world view?

by time frame:

Example: What are the most prominent environmental issues of the last 10 years?

by discipline:

Example: How does environmental awareness effect business practices today?

by population group:

Example: What are the effects of air pollution on senior citizens?