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Hospital Chaplains: How to conduct an effective literature search

Integrating research literacy into chaplaincy.

Literature searching in one simple flowchart

1. Articulate a question  2. Concept Table   3. Database-specific syntax  4. Search and filter  5. Download citations and retrieve full text  6. Read and synthesize

1 - articulate a question

What is your research question? Use PICO to help break down a research question into its important concepts.

In this example let's use the question: "How can a hospital chaplain practice self-compassion while interacting with patients and their issues?" 

2 - plan your strategy with a concept table

Researchers use a concept table to organize all the concepts, textwords, and controlled vocabulary relevant to their search.

Concept name Concept 1   Concept 2
Search terms (A OR B) AND (C OR D)

The concepts in your search will depend on your research question. Each concept can be represented by various textwords and controlled vocabulary terms. 

The textwords in your search are words and phrases that you expect to see in the title and abstract of relevant papers. Any concept in your search might be represented by several different textwords. Sometimes people call textwords "keywords."

The controlled vocabulary terms in your search are words or phrases drawn from a database-specific list of the terms that indexers use to describe the contents of each article. Different databases use different controlled vocabularies: MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycInfo, and the ATLA religion databases, for example, use a specialized thesaurus of controlled vocabulary terms. Some databases, such as Web of Science, don't use a thesaurus; you can only search them with textwords. Sometimes people call controlled vocabulary terms "subject headings" or "keywords," too. 

Your search will use both textwords and controlled vocabulary terms. Controlled vocabulary terms help you retrieve relevant papers even when the author uses terminology you didn't expect. Textwords help you retrieve relevant papers even when the thesaurus doesn't cover the concepts you're interested in.

Your final search statement will include several concepts, each represented by many textwords and controlled vocabulary terms. The synonyms representing one concept will be gathered inside parentheses and connected by the Boolean operator OR. The different parentheses representing all the concepts will be connected by the Boolean operator AND.

Here is an example of what your final search strategy might look like. Remember you can add as many concepts into your search strategy to improve the number of results recalled from your search.

Concept name Concept 1   Concept 2
  self-care[MeSH Heading]   Clergy[MeSH Heading]

"self compassion" 

"self care"








Final Search: 

(self-care[MeSH Heading] OR "self compassion" OR "self care") AND (Clergy[MeSH Heading] OR chaplain* OR minister* OR clergy)


3 - apply database-specific syntax

Your search will definitely use Boolean operators, like AND and OR. Your search might also use other operators for truncation and phrases.

Truncation searching uses a symbol to search for a string of characters, no matter how the word ends. You may use truncation to find different word forms; chaplain* will retrieve papers with chaplain, chaplains, chaplaincy, etc.

Phrase searching uses quotation marks or hyphens to search for an exact phrase, instead of a single word (self care vs "self care").

5 - download citations

Your group might use EndNote, RefWorks, or another reference and PDF manager. Whatever software package you use, you should download your results into your reference manager. 

4 - search and apply filters

When you run your search in the database, you can apply filters. Many researchers use language filters or date filters. 

Some researchers use a "full-text only" filter -- but as a Yale affiliate, you can depend on the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library to get you PDFs of papers you want to read.

6 - Read and Synthesize