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Nursing Research: Researching Your Topics

Guide to research in Nursing.

Researching Your Topic

Define your Topic

A good library research topic usually contains 2-3 concepts. It is often in the form of a research question or statement.

Topics with only 1 concept or many concepts are hard to research.

Look at these examples for how to break a topic into concepts. We will use the concepts as keywords. See how the outcome changes when you have more or fewer concepts in a search topic:


Number of Concepts


Good: Impact of obesity on the development of Type II Diabetes

obesity and Type II Diabetes= 2

9,928​ results in [[CINAHL Plus with Full text]] database

Good: How do high school dropouts rate their self-efficacy?

high school and dropouts and self-efficacy= 3

45 results in [[ERIC]] database

Bad: Obesity

Obesity= 1

88,563 results in [[CINAHL Plus with Full Text]]

Bad: Do conflicts with 9th grade homeroom teachers result in students in Boston dropping out of school?

9th grade and homeroom and teachers and students and Boston and drop out= 6

0 results in [[ERIC]] database

Be Aware: Are you trying to support your personal opinion? Scholars focus on measurable research, and work to avoid bias. Your opinion may not be researched, or the research may support a different conclusion.

Pick Keywords

Breaking your topic or research question into keywords is your second step after you define your topic.

Pull out the words that indicate the main concepts of your topic.


  • Research question: What are some of the causes of malpractice for nurse managers?
  • Keywords: causes, malpractice, nurse manager
  • Words such as "what" and "some" do not relate to the core concepts of the research question and are not effective keywords.
  • Brainstorm alternative keywords that an author might have used. This includes different word forms:
  • nurses
  • risk management 
  • medical malpractice
  • law suit
  • health care manager
  • hospitals
  • negligence
  • healthcare professionals 

Why are Keywords Important?

Keywords are the search terms that you enter into the database to describe the topic of items that you want to retrieve.  The database will word-match your keywords against the text of the article, and deliver results that match what you enter.

You can tell the database how to look for those words:  

  • Do you want it to find the word anywhere in the whole article, or only in specific fields such as the title or the abstract? 
  • How should it combine your keywords– should it look for all of the keywords?  
  • Can it look for any of the synonyms that you provide?

The great benefit of keyword searching is the precision. You can develop focused, precise searches in a library database, and get exactly what you need. It just takes some practice to become an expert searcher.

The databases can only word match. Databases look for the exact words and phrases you type in. 

This means you must:

  • break your topic into individual keywords.
  • brainstorm the words an author might use.
  • avoid phrases.  Unless your phrase happens to match the article exactly, the database won’t retrieve it.

Connect your keywords with Boolean Operators

Most databases have multiple search boxes near the top of the page. Use them to enter each of your core concepts separately. Here is an example of how to set up a keyword search using the terms in the Pick Keywords box above.

1. Type in your keywords.

  First search box:


  Second search box:

nurse manager  

2. Click the Search button.


Tip: If you don't see enough boxes for your keywords, look for an Advanced Search option.



Samantha McNeilly's picture
Samantha McNeilly
Archives & Special Collections Department
802 Library Tower