Skip to Main Content

Locating Qualitative Research

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

MEDLINE via PubMed or Ovid

At NYU, MEDLINE can be searched via Ovid, or via PubMed.  PubMed also includes some records that are not indexed in MEDLINE (see "MEDLINE, PubMed, and PMC: How are they different?"

Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) for Qualitative Research

MeSH Terms

MEDLINE has the following MeSH terms available, which can be used to retrieve qualitative research

  • Qualitative Research - research that derives data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focuses on the meanings and interpretations of the participants. Year introduced: 2003
  • Interviews as Topic - conversations with an individual or individuals held in order to obtain information about their background and other personal biographical data, their attitudes and opinions, etc. It includes school admission or job interviews. Year introduced: 2008 (1980)
  • Focus Groups - a method of data collection and a qualitative research tool in which a small group of individuals are brought together and allowed to interact in a discussion of their opinions about topics, issues, or questions. Year introduced: 1993]
  • Nursing Methodology Research - research carried out by nurses concerning techniques and methods to implement projects and to document information, including methods of interviewing patients, collecting data, and forming inferences. The concept includes exploration of methodological issues such as human subjectivity and human experience. Year introduced: 1991(1989)
  • Anecdotes as Topic - brief accounts or narratives of an incident or event. Year introduced: 2008(1963)]
  • Narration - the act, process, or an instance of narrating, i.e., telling a story. In the context of MEDICINE or ETHICS, narration includes relating the particular and the personal in the life story of an individual. Year introduced: 2003
  • Video Recording - the storing or preserving of video signals for television to be played back later via a transmitter or receiver. Recordings may be made on magnetic tape or discs (VIDEODISC RECORDING). Year introduced: 1984
  • Tape Recording - recording of information on magnetic or punched paper tape. Year introduced: 1967(1964)
  • Personal Narratives as Topic - works about accounts of individual experience in relation to a particular field or of participation in related activities. Year introduced: 2013

NOTE: There is some inconsistent indexing in MEDLINE. For example, articles using a grounded theory approach are not always indexed with the subject term "Qualitative Research". As such, it is a good idea to also perform text word searches for additional terms: “grounded theory”, “action research”, ethnograph* etc.

Related MeSH Terms

There are some additional MeSH terms that may indicate a qualitative methodology and could be applicable (depending on your topic), including:

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Attitude to Death
  • Attitude to Health
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice

Field Tags in PubMed and MEDLINE via Ovid

To find records that have been tagged with a specific MeSH term, you can use a field tag to ask the search engine to only retrieve results that have that term in the MeSH field of the record.  


In PubMed, the field tags are enclosed in square brackets.  [MeSH], [MH] or [MeSH Terms] are all equivalent tags that can be used to ask the search engine look in the MeSH field, only.  For example: "Qualitative Research"[MeSH]

MEDLINE via Ovid

In MEDLINE via Ovid, the field tags are appended to the end of the term.  The field tag sh or the forward slash symbol / can be used.  For example "Qualitative Research"/ or "Qualitative Research".sh.

Clinical Queries / Health Services Research Queries

Clinical Queries are pre-formulated search strings that can be applied to a search to act as a filter.  They are designed to help users focus their search by retrieving scientifically sound and clinically relevant study reports indexed in MEDLINE.  MEDLINE via Ovid offers a "Clinical Query" filter for locating Qualitative Research, while PubMed offers this filter under 'Health Services Research Queries'

Directions - Applying Clinical Queries / Hedges

MEDLINE via Ovid

  1. Run the search you wish to filter
  2. Click Additional Limits
  3. Scroll to the box for Clinical Queries
  4. Select the query you'd like to apply (Qualitative - Maximizes Sensitivity, Maximized Specificity, or Best Balance*)
  5. Ensure that the search you wish to limit is selected
  6. Click Limit a Search


Health Services Research (HSR) Queries
  1. Navigate to the HSR Queries 
  2. In the search bar under Search by HSR Study Category type/paste the search you wish to limit
  3. Select Category: Qualitative research
  4. Choose a Scope as either Broad (sensitive) or Narrow (specific)*
  5. Next to the search bar, click Go
  6. Your search will run in PubMed, combined (using AND) with the search string for the query you selected
Alternative Suggested Qualitative Hedge
  1. Run the search you wish to filter in PubMed
  2. Use AND to combine your search with the following query:

(((“semi-structured”[TIAB] OR semistructured[TIAB] OR unstructured[TIAB] OR informal[TIAB] OR “in-depth”[TIAB] OR indepth[TIAB] OR “face-to-face”[TIAB] OR structured[TIAB] OR guide[TIAB] OR guides[TIAB]) AND (interview*[TIAB] OR discussion*[TIAB] OR questionnaire*[TIAB])) OR (“focus group”[TIAB] OR “focus groups”[TIAB] OR qualitative[TIAB] OR ethnograph*[TIAB] OR fieldwork[TIAB] OR “field work”[TIAB] OR “key informant”[TIAB])) OR “interviews as topic”[Mesh] OR “focus groups”[Mesh] OR narration[Mesh] OR qualitative research[Mesh] OR "personal narratives as topic"[Mesh]

*Sensitivity vs. Specificity: A highly 'sensitive' query will attempt to retrieve all relevant documents, resulting in a broader search, with a greater likelihood of generating false hits.  A highly 'specific' 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.

Qualitative Publication Types

MEDLINE records contain publication type metadata, allowing you to limit your search to only show records for publication types that are, by definition, most likely qualitative.  Possible Publication Type values include:

  • Interview: work consisting of a conversation with an individual regarding his or her background and other personal and professional details, opinions on specific subjects posed by the interviewer, etc. Year introduced: 2008(1993)
  • Diaries: works consisting of records, usually private, of writers' experiences, observations, feelings, attitudes, etc. They may also be works marked in calendar order in which to note appointments and the like. (From Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2d ed) Year introduced: 2008(1997)
  • Anecdotes: works consisting of brief accounts or narratives of incidents or events. Year introduced: 2008(1999)
  • Personal Narratives: works consisting of accounts of individual experience in relation to a particular field or of participation in related activities. Year introduced: 2013

Directions - Filtering for Publication Type



To apply the filters for publication type in PubMed:

  1. Run the search you wish to filter
  2. Navigate to the filter menu on the left side of the results screen
  3. Scroll to the bottom of the left-side menu and select Additional filters
  4. In the Article Type section, select the filters you would like to make available (you can select more than one)
  5. Click Show
  6. The filters you selected will now be available in the left-side filter menu, under Article Type
  7. Check the Article Type filters you wish to apply to the search
  8. The filters will apply automatically as you check them, but you may make repeated selections to apply more than one filter at a time

MEDLINE via Ovid

  1. Run the search you wish to filter
  2. Click Additional Limits
  3. Scroll to the box for Publication Types
  4. Select the limits you'd like to apply (you can select more than one option with CMD+click on a Mac, or CTRL+click on a PC)
  5. Ensure that the search you wish to limit is selected
  6. Click Limit a Search

Use Text Words

When searching using subject headings (and the field tags that look only in the subject field of records - e.g., [MeSH]), 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). 

The following string of search 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*)

Mixed Methods Research Design

MEDLINE does not have suitable MeSH terms for mixed methods research. Search your topic with the following suggested, text words using the quotation marks and truncation symbol*:

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