Research Tips and Techniques for Social Workers
Electronic access to information has opened the door to a wide array of materials. This can be overwhelming, particularly if you are embarking on a research project and not sure about which resources might be best suited for your topic.
Before you start searching in the online databases, print indexes, etc., consider these preliminary steps:
1. Be very clear in your mind about your research topic, and exactly what it is that you hope to find.
2. Break your topic down into key words or phrases. Think of as many synonyms as possible, so that you can try using them in various combinations. Consulting a thesaurus may help with this process.
3. Choose the most appropriate databases, print indexes etc. to search for your topic.
Where to Start
Not sure where to start or what resources could be most useful for your research? Help may be close to home. If you live near a college or university, you could make an appointment to speak to the Social Work librarian. Even if there is not a Social Work program at your nearest college or university, you could contact the library reference desk for assistance. E-mail, telephone or virtual reference services are also available. The Leddy Library at the University of Windsor has a Chat with a Librarian link, which allows library patrons to have online conversations with library staff. Your local public library can also offer assistance.
It can be useful to take a look at the library websites of universities and colleges that have Social Work programs, as they frequently make subject-specific guides available online. These guides may highlight databases, e-books, reference materials, websites, etc., pertaining to Social Work. The Leddy Library has a brief guide for Social Work at the following URL:
as well as a more detailed Social Work research guide at:
If you have selected a database for your research but are not familiar with it, get some orientation from library staff if possible or check the help functions within the database that you are using. Click on these Help buttons or links to review the search tips that the database provides for basic and advanced searches.
Keyword & Subject Searching
At this point, you are ready to start your search in a database using, for example, a keyword search and trying different combinations of words and phrases for your topic. When you get your search results, look at the full record for any reference that comes up that is a good match for your research topic. With the full record for a reference, you not only get the abstract for the article (if one is available), but you also get the subject headings, full publication information and sometimes the bibliography for the article. Check the subject headings to find others that match your topic, and then choose to do subject heading searches using these subject headings. A subject heading search generally gives more focused results because your references must feature your subject heading. A keyword search is a more general search as your terms could be in the titles, abstracts, subject headings, etc. for any of your search results. For a comprehensive search on a topic, you would do both keyword and subject searching. To isolate highly relevant materials on your topic, then subject searching is a more focused way to search.
Some databases provide handy links within references that can lead to additional materials. For example, in OVID’s CINAHL database (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), you will see find similar and find citing links under each of the references. Clicking on the find similar link will locate references similar to the original one. The find citing link will yield references to articles that have cited that particular article. Therefore, if you find a reference that is a good match for your topic and you have the option of using these links, you may find some useful additional materials.
NASW’s Social Work Abstracts database has a suggest button option on the basic search screen. If you type a word or phrase into the search box and then click on the suggest button, the database will try to come up with as many subject headings as possible that could be useful for your topic. Hence, if you are having trouble finding materials for your topic or want to make sure that you are doing a comprehensive search for your area of interest, make use of this suggest button.
Be aware of spelling variations when searching in various databases and library catalogues. If you use Canadian spellings of certain words exclusively when searching databases, you may lose American references and vice-versa. A keyword search using truncation can help to cover spelling variations. For example, if you type behav* into CSA’s Social Services Abstracts database, the database will look for all words that start with the root behav, so it will look for behaviour(s), behavior(s), behave, behaving, behavioral, etc. Truncation symbols can vary. It is an asterisk for CSA’s Social Services Abstracts database, but a dollar sign ($) for OVID’s CINAHL database. To ensure that your truncated search will work, use the Help button/link for the database that you are using and look up truncation in the table of contents. There may also be provision for wildcard searches. For example, if you do a keyword search and type behavio?r into NASW’s Social Work Abstracts database, you will cover both spelling variations for behaviour. Since wildcard symbols can also vary depending on the database that you are using, once again check the help screens.
Applying Limits to Your Search
Applying limits to your search can also help you to zero in on material that is more pertinent to your research. For example, NASW’s Social Work Abstracts database allows you to limit your search to a range of years (e.g., 2000 - 2007) and by publication type (journal or book or chapter or dissertation). CSA’s Social Services Abstracts database has a variety of limits, such as restricting your results to the latest update (very useful, if you want to retrieve the most recent information about your topic in the database); limiting to English language results (if you do not want to include references in other languages); and limiting your references to materials that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals. OVID’s CINAHL database has brief limits that appear under the search box on the main search screen. More detailed limits are available, if you click on the More Limits option that also appears under the search box. Options here include limiting results to peer-reviewed journals and evidence-based practice. If you are looking for evidence-based materials, check to see what limits you can apply to your search for the database that you are using.
Another way to find evidence-based materials is to do a keyword search and combine your research topic with evidence-based practice - e.g., child welfare and evidence-based practice. The database that you’re using may have a subject heading for evidence-based practice. You may get more focused results by using the subject heading and combining it with your research topic.
Interlibrary Loan Services
Some databases may provide full text access to journal articles. However, if you come across a reference (e.g., a journal article) that is not available in full text online and if your library has no other access to this article, then you may want to make use of interlibrary loan services to obtain a copy of the article from another library. Students, faculty members and sessional lecturers at a university or college will have interlibrary loan privileges at the library for their institution and can submit an interlibrary loan request through that library. If you do not have such an affiliation, then you can put an interlibrary loan request in to your local public library and their librarian will try to track the item down for you.
Several key search tips and techniques have been covered in this article. Consulting library staff and online library guides as well as using help screens for various databases will give you additional ideas for your research.
Sharon Munro, BSW, MSW, MLIS, is Information Services Librarian at Leddy Library, University of Windsor.