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Locating Qualitative Research

Guide to search strategies and filters for locating qualitative research, particularly in the health sciences.

CINAHL for Finding Qualitative Research

Studies have shown that CINAHL is generally the best database to use to find qualitative research articles related to a nursing topic, mainly due to its more in depth thesaurus terms1,2

Not only does CINAHL's subject thesaurus contain more terms describing qualitative research, the general term "Qualitative Studies" became a thesaurus term in CINAHL in 1988, whereas "Qualitative Research" was added to PubMed's MeSH thesaurus in 2003.

  1. Flemming K, Briggs M. Electronic searching to locate qualitative research: evaluation of three strategies.  Journal of Advanced Nursing 2007 Jan; 57 ( 1 ): 95-100. 
  2. Wilczynski NL, Marks S, Haynes RB. Search strategies for identifying qualitative studies in CINAHL.  Qualitative Health Research 2007 May; 17 ( 5 ): 705-10.  

CINAHL Subject Headings - Qualitative Research

"Qualitative Studies" 

In 1988, the phrase "Qualitative Studies" was added to the CINAHL subject thesaurus, and it is applied to records describing "investigations which use sensory methods such as listening or observing to gather and organize data into patterns or themes." 

You can search for any record that has this subject heading using the field tag MH: (MH "Qualitative Studies")

Explode Qualitative Studies (MH "Qualitative Studies+")

There are more specific subject headings under "Qualitative Studies" in the CINAHL subject hierarchy:

  • Action Research
  • Ethnographic Research
  • Ethnological Research
  • Ethnonursing Research
  • Grounded Theory
  • Naturalistic Inquiry
  • Phenomenological Research

Exploding' (+) this term will include those headings in the search as well (searching them all together with OR): (MH "Qualitative Studies+") 

Related Subject Headings 

There are a number of additional CINAHL Subject Headings that may indicate that a record is describes qualitative research.  For instance:

  • Focus Groups
  • Narratives
  • Interviews
    • Explode (+) to include: Semi-Structured Interview, Structured Interview, Unstructured Interview
  • Descriptive Research
  • Descriptive Statistics
  • Audiorecording
  • Videorecording
  • Diaries
  • Observational Methods
    • Explode (+) to include: Non-Participant Observation, Participant Observation, Structured Categories, Unstructured Categories)
  • Projective Techniques
    • Explode (+) to include: Pictorial Methods, Verbal Projective Techniques)
  • Vignettes

Clinical Queries

Clinical Queries are pre-formulated search strings that can be applied to a search as a filter.  They are designed to help users focus their search by retrieving scientifically sound and clinically relevant study reports indexed in CINAHL databases.  CINAHL offers a "Clinical Query" filter for locating Qualitative Research.  

The queries are listed below, including the exact queries that are associated with each limit. 

Qualitative - High Sensitivity*

((MH “study design+” NOT MM “study design+”) OR MH “attitude” OR (MH “interviews+” NOT MM “interviews+”))

Qualitative - High Specificity

((MH “grounded theory” NOT MM “grounded theory”) OR (TI thematic analysis OR AB thematic analysis OR MW thematic analysis))

Qualitative - Best Balance

((TI interview OR AB interview) OR (MH “audiorecording” NOT MM “audiorecording”) OR (TI qualitative stud* OR AB qualitative stud*))

*Sensitivity vs. Specificity: "High sensitivity" indicates that the query will attempt to retrieve all relevant documents, resulting in a broader search, with a greater likelihood of generating false hits.  "High specificity" indicates that the query tries to retrieve only relevant documents in a smaller, more precise search. "Best balance" is a search that balances specificity and sensitivity.  Note that for a comprehensive literature search, it is important to err on the side of higher sensitivity.

Instructions: Using Clinical Queries in CINAHL

  1. Run the search you wish to filter
  2. Navigate to the Limit to menu (on the left side of the results screen)
  3. Click Show More to view all the search options
  4. In the Search Options pop up window, scroll down to the Clinical Queries options
  5. Select the desired Clinical Query 
  6. Click Search to apply the selected filter

Silent 20 second video clip illustrating the steps for using the Qualitative Clinical Query in CINAHL. 

See this guide for a full tutorial (with sound and transcription) on how to apply filters in CINAHL.

For more information about the CINAHL Clinical Queries visit the EBSCO Connect help page.

Use Text Words

When searching using subject headings (and the field tags that look only in the subject field of records - e.g., MH), it is possible to miss records that are not well described using the subject terms.  As such, it is a good idea to also try using text words, or keyword searching, to look in the other fields of the records (e.g., the title and abstract).  These terms can be used across many different databases to try to locate records describing qualitative research:

(qualitative OR ethnograph* OR phenomenol* OR ethnonurs* OR grounded theor* OR purposive sample OR hermeneutic* OR heuristic* OR semiotics OR lived experience* OR narrative* OR life experiences OR cluster sample OR action research OR observational method OR content analysis OR thematic analysis OR constant comparative method OR field stud* OR theoretical sample OR discourse analysis OR focus group* OR ethnological research OR ethnomethodolog* OR interview*)

Filter for Publication Type

You can limit your search to only show records for publication types that are, by definition, most likely qualitative (e.g., Anecdotes, Interviews).  

To filter by Publication Type:

  1. Run the search you wish to filter
  2. Navigate to the Limit to menu (on the left side of the results screen)
  3. Click Show More to view all the search options
  4. In the Search Options pop up window, scroll down to the Publication Type options
  5. Select the desired publication types (Cmd+click or Ctrl+click to select multiple options)
  6. Click Search to apply the selected filters.

Locating Mixed Methods Research

CINAHL Subject Headings: Multimethod Studies or Triangulation

CINAHL has the following Subject Headings that may be useful for locating mixed-methods studies:

  • (MH "Multimethod Studies")
  • (MH "Triangulation")


You can also search your topic with the following suggested text words:

  • mixed model* OR mixed design* OR multiple method* OR multimethod* OR triangulat*