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Bachelor of Science in Nursing Research Guide

A research guide to find BSN resources from the EFSC Libraries

Research Process

Before you can start your research you need to select a topic. Your topic should:

  • fit the requirements of your assignment

  • not be too general (broad) or too specific (narrow)

  • interest you!

To help you focus your topic, it's best to put your topic into the form of a question.

For a refresher on Topic Development, check out Module 2 Topic Development of BILT: Basic Information Literacy Tutorial.

Next, break your topic into 2 or 3 main concepts.

Then brainstorm keywords for each concept. Think of synonyms or related terms. A thesaurus, dictionary, or your textbook can be useful when thinking of related terms. Sometimes broader or narrower terms can be helpful too.

Why brainstorm? When searching, it's hard to know what words authors will use when they're writing about your topic. It's a good strategy to have a list of possible keywords ready so you can swap out terms as you search and hopefully get more and/or better results.

Think about:

  • clinical terms versus lay terms

    • myocardial infarction vs. heart attack
    • neoplasm vs. cancer
  • acronyms versus the term(s) spelled out

    • HIV vs. human immunodeficiency virus
    • HIPAA vs. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
  • variations of a term

    • ultrasonography, ultrasound, sonography

What are subject headings?

According to the Library of Congress, subject headings are "a type of controlled vocabulary that is used to take the guesswork out of searching by using a single term to describe a subject".

Controlled vocabulary are lists of preferred terms to use when searching for information.

For example:

keywords: cancer, carcinoma, are found under the subject heading: neoplasms

keywords: teens, teenagers, youth, are found under the subject heading: adolescence

While doing research you may come across many different controlled vocabularies including:

  • Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH)

  • Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)

  • CINAHL Headings

  • ERIC Thesaurus

  • Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms

The most common controlled vocabularies in medical research are the CINAHL Headings and MeSH.

Review Module 5 Database Searching of BILT: Basic Information Literacy Tutorial for more details on keyword and subject heading searching. This table summarizes the main differences between each: 


Subject Headings

broad search, more results

precise search, fewer results

many irrelevant results

better quality results 

searches all fields OR selected fields in database records

searches  only  subject fields in database records 

search using  any  significant terms 

search using approved terms only 

use when beginning your research 
use to find subject headings
use when searching for new concepts
use when searching for distinctive words

use to focus your research

Video developed at the Wellington Medical and Health Sciences Library at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Standard YouTube License (time: 1:56)


Video developed at the Potomac State College of West Virginia University. Standard YouTube License (time 2:46)

The way you combine your keywords in a search can make a big difference in the quality of results found.

Review Module 4 Search Strategies of BILT: Basic Information Literacy Tutorial for more details on the following strategies.

Boolean Operators:


  • use to combine concepts

  • each term MUST be present in the search results

  • narrows your results

  • finds fewer results

  • example: visitation AND intensive care units


  • use when searching for synonyms or related terms

  • broadens your results

  • finds more results

  • example: ICU OR intensive care units


Truncation takes a root word and finds all endings of that word. The truncation symbol is the asterisk, *.

  • expands your search

  • finds more results

  • helpful when searching for both singular and plural forms of a word

  • example: infect* will find infect, infects, infected, infection, infecting, etc.

Phrase Searching:

Phrase searching is useful when you are searching for keywords that are more than one word. Use quotes, " ", around terms.

  • focuses your search

  • use when you want your terms to appear together, exactly as entered

  • more precise than combining terms with AND

  • example: "intensive care unit" will find better, more focused results than intensive AND care AND unit

Example Research Topic

Once you have selected a topic and before you start searching for resources, it is helpful to perform these steps:

Topic: Should restrictive visitation policies be changed in intensive care units?

Step 1: Break the topic into main concepts:


Step 2A: Brainstorm keywords for each concept:

Try thinking of synonyms and related terms. A thesaurus may be helpful. 
intensive care unit
intensive care
critical care unit
critical care

Step 3: Combine your terms in a search.

ICU OR "intensive care unit*"

Step 4: Search an appropriate resource

Step 5: Review results for alternative keywords or subject headings and redo search (as needed)