Comprehensive Searching in the Social Sciences

This guide details instructions and tips for performing comprehensive and systematic searches in the social sciences.

Subject Guide

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Dale Larsen

I love to help with your research: from just seeing the assignment, to wrapping up with citation management -drop me a line or come by 1726C on the first floor of the Marriott Library

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Why Document?

Even if you are not using your search to perform a systematic review, thoroughly documenting your search process allows it to be reproducible, both by you and other researchers. When we make our searches reproducible, it further adds to the legitimacy of our research; not only can other researchers replicate our study, but they can follow the steps we took to gain background information and supporting sources for that study. Responsibly participating in the scholarly conversation is as important in the research process as our actual research, and thoroughly documenting our systematic search further gives voice to those whose work we used as well as the works we don't, allowing other researchers to find those sources as well.

Documenting as You Go

As you conduct your systematic search, you should document every step of the process. PRISMA has flowchart templates for this and you should absolutely use them, but while documenting, feel free to use whichever method you prefer, such as a spreadsheet or word document.

For each database, and for each search string (to be thorough, make sure you do searches individually and then combined, so do your keyword search, then your subject search, and then your combined search), note the date and time of the search and the number of results. Copy and paste your search string into your document to avoid typos. It is also a good idea to take a screenshot or save the page locally to your computer, as it is possible that the database results will change with time.

To give further context, keep a research diary alongside your documentation in order to explain why you chose the terms and strategies you used.

Documentation Tips

  1. Copy and paste your search string/terms into whatever you are using to document. By using copy/paste, you remove the possibility of typing your search string incorrectly when you note it in your document. Typos are incredibly likely when you have long, complicated search strings.
  2. Use a citation manager to capture the results in each database. Zotero, in particular, allows you to capture multiple sources at once. If the full text of the article is available in the database, your citation manager can store that as well, and you will be able to see all of your results and read the articles whenever needed. Citation managers also have note-taking functionality so you can annotate your citations.
  3. If you continue to do research in your topic, you can subscribe to your search results in most databases, either via email or RSS feeds.

Citation Managers

There are four common citation managers: EndNote, NoodleTools, Zotero and Mendeley

EndNote, EndNote Basic, and Zotero are bibliographic management programs that help you manage, store, and organize references.

EndNote remains the favored, time-saving solution for organizing references and creating instant bibliographies.

  • Significant learning curve
  • If you are a scholar or aspiring scholar you should invest the time now in order to save time and headaches later
  • You may purchase Endnote X.7 from the Office of Software Licensing (You may want to use both EndNote  and EndNote Basic)
  • See EndNote Desktop guide

EndNote Basic (formerly known as EndNote Web) is free for U of U students, staff, and faculty.

NoodleTools is free for U of U students, staff, and faculty.

  • Easy to Use
  • Undergraduate student focus
  • Self-guided tool that teaches how to properly document sources in MLA, APA or Chicago/Turabian
  • Produces a fully formatted Works Cited/References page
  • See NoodleTools User Guide


  • Freely available
  • Easy to import citations from Usearch, many library databases, and many websites
  • Can import dozens of citations at a time from Google Scholar
  • Compatible with EndNote Basic and Mendeley
  • See Zotero guide


  • Freely available
  • Can import citations from many library databases and webpages
  • Can share citations through groups feature
  • See Mendeley guide
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