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Library Resources for MSN Students: Creating Your Search

This guide provides information on how best to utilize library resources throughout your MSN program at the College of Nursing.

Vocabulary used on this page...


Keywords are the unofficial terms that are used to describe a concept. These may be plain language terms or highly specialized jargon. They are different from controlled vocabulary because they are not the words used by the database to organize resources. For instance, PsycINFO uses the Subject Term "Neoplasms," but the literature also uses the keyword "cancer."


Synonyms are words that are interchangeable with one another in describing a concept. For instance, "heart attack" and "myocardial infarction" are used interchangeably within the literature to describe an event when the heart stops beating.

Related Terms

Related terms are words that may not be perfectly interchangeable with others, but they may "play nicely" in the literature. These terms may be similar to the original keywords and may appear in conjunction with the original keywords within the literature. For instance, when searching for "mindfulness," you may also see related terms such as "yoga" and "deep breathing."

Boolean Operators (OR, AND)

Boolean operators are commands to the database, instructing the database how to interpret your combination of search terms.

Use the OR operator to search all synonyms and related terms within a concept group.

Use the AND operator to narrow the search to only the literature that discusses all of your concept groups together.

Venn diagram describing relationship of Boolean OR and Boolean AND


The PICO(TS) Method is used to take a research question and break it down into searchable concept groups. The acronym stands for:

P = patient, population, problem, phenomenon

= intervention, exposure

C = comparison

O = outcome

T = timeframe

S = setting

There are many different ways to use this method, and there are no restrictions on how many concepts can be within each letter category. (For instance, you might have a patient and a problem.) I would caution against searching for outcomes; this could potentially cause selection bias in your search results where you only find results to support your hypothesis or argument.

Sample Research Inquiry

How do nurses support health literacy needs in rural areas?

P = nurses; health literacy

I  = none

C = none

O = none

T = none

S = rural

Concept Tables

Using concept tables can help you to group keywords, synonyms, and related terms within a concept group. If I have three concept groups, for instance, then I start with a table of 2 rows and 4 columns (see below).

  Concept 1:
Concept 2:
Health literacy
Concept 3:
Rural areas
Keywords Nurse
"Nursing personnel"
"Health literacy" Rural
"Rural areas"
"Rural health centers"

Note: in the videos above, I describe how to create a concept table for an advanced search using something called "controlled vocabulary." For more information how to use controlled vocabulary in your search, see the Research Guides for DNP and PhD Students. Otherwise, you can skip that step for now.

From Concept Table to Search Strategy

Example concept table with Boolean operators and grouping mark-up

The image above offers a visual description of what we do when we transform our concept table into a search strategy.

  • First, the red parentheses indicate individual concept groups. So:

(all words related to Concept 1), (all words related to Concept 2), (all words related to Concept 3)

  • Next, use OR in between all of your synonyms and related terms within each concept group. So:

(Synonym OR Related term)

  • Finally, use AND between all of your individual concept groups. So:

(Concept 1 Synonym OR Related term)


(Concept 2 Synonym OR Related term)


(Concept 3 Synonym OR Related term)

Tip: use double quotation marks (" ") around search terms of more than one word. So, instead of searching for nursing personnel, search for "nursing personnel". This commands the database to keep your words together as a single unit.

Using the example search topic from above, the concept table becomes the following:

Example search strategy with Boolean operators and grouping mark-up

In the database, it looks like this:

(Nurse OR Nurses OR "Nursing personnel") AND ("Health literacy") AND (Rural OR "Rural areas" OR "Rural health centers" OR "Rural population" OR "Rural populations" OR "Rural health nursing" OR "Underserved populations")

Note: in the videos above, I describe how to create an advanced search using something called "controlled vocabulary." For more information how to use controlled vocabulary in your search, see the Research Guides for DNP and PhD Students. Otherwise, you can skip that step for now.

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Choosing Your Databases

Databases are normally thematic in nature, so it is important to know what kind of topic you have in order to begin to narrow down your databases options. The video above explains some differences between three common databases: PubMed, CINAHL, and ProQuest. The table below (click to enlarge) outlines the topics covered by common databases.

PubMed CINAHL PsycINFO ProQuest: Nursing &
Allied Health Sciences
Diagnosis Nursing science Psychology Dissertations & theses Education statistics
Therapy Patient education Social issues Nursing science Education research
Prognosis Nurse theory Family roles Alternative medicine  
Etiology Health administration Behavioral science    


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