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Locating Qualitative Research

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

Finding Qualitative Health Research in Bibliographic Databases

Qualitative research is defined as research that derives data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focuses on the meanings and interpretations of the participants1.

Qualitative research can be challenging to find as these methodologies are not always well-indexed, or well-described in the records that make up bibliographic databases. This help guide will provide some tips and information to guide you in your search for qualitative research articles through databases, such as PubMed, CINAHL and PsycINFO.

Note: in the event that you're attempting to perform a comprehensive search, it may be better to search broadly on the concepts of interest, and then manually screen for research that employed qualitative methodologies.  

  1. Holloway I, Wheeler S. Ethical issues in qualitative nursing research. Nursing Ethics 1995 Sep;2(3):223-32.

Keyword-Based Strategy (For Any Database)

Different bibliographic databases (e.g., CINAHL or MEDLINE) rely on different sets of controlled vocabularies to tag the subjects of articles, and will contain different kinds of metadata, depending on the nature of the database.  As such, it is necessary to tailor the search for qualitative research depending on which database is being used. 

However, in most databases, it is possible to yse text words to look in any field (e.g., the title, abstract, or keywords) in the database records for terms that may indicate the record is describing a qualitative research study.  

Some relevant text words (or keywords) include:

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

To search for records that contain any of these terms, combined them with the Boolean operator OR:

(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*)

These terms may be useful to complement a search that conducted with subject headings, or to be used on their own in databases that do not use a controlled vocabulary to index subjects (for instance Web of Science, or Scopus).

Database-Specific Hedges / Search Filters

In addition to the strategies described for individual databases in the pages to the left (MEDLINE, CINAHL, and PsycINFO), it may be helpful to explore the database-specific Qualitative Research Search Filters compiled by InterTASC Information Specialists SubGroup.  There are filters described there for use in Ovid Embase.

Further Reading