Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Locating Qualitative Research

Guide to search strategies and filters for locating qualitative research.


Qualitative research is defined as research that derives data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focuses on the meanings and interpretations of the participants. (Holloway and Wheeler, 1995)

Qualitative research can be challenging to find as these methodologies are not always well-indexed in 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.

For Any Database

Strategy 1: Use Thesaurus Terms

Databases use controlled keywords (known as thesaurus terms or subject headings) to categorize each record stored. PubMed, for example, uses Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), a highly structured thesaurus. The thesaurus terms vary for each database according to their indexing system. For example, qualitative research is indexed in PubMed as "Qualitative Research" or "Nursing Methodology Research", while in CINAHL their subject heading "Qualitative Studies" is complemented by more detailed terms, including "Phenomenological Research" and "Grounded Theory".

Strategy 2: Use Text Words

This strategy uses Text Word terms that might specifically identify qualitative research and searches the titles, abstracts and keywords of records held in the databases. Some 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*.

Strategy 3: Use Qualitative Research Filters

Qualitative Research Filters are pre-formulated search strategies that have been constructed by librarians to help you retrieve articles in databases that deal with qualitative research. You can use the filter and then combine the results with your subject.

Here are just a few examples:

  • In PubMed: There is a special query interface for Health Services Research which has a category for Qualitative Research

  • In CINAHL: Refine/Limit the set to Clinical Queries. Select within the drop-down Clinical Queries menu: Qualitative-High Sensitivity; Qualitative-High Specificity; Qualitative-Best Balance. High Sensitivity is the broadest search, to include ALL relevant material, but may also include less relevant materials. High Specificity is the most targeted search to include only the most relevant result set, but may miss some relevant materials. Best Balance retrieves the best balance between Sensitivity and Specificity.

  • In PsycINFO: Limit to Clinical queries: Qualitative, OR, try the same search, limiting to Methodology:  select Qualitative Study, Interview, or Focus Groups under the Methodology drop-down menu. Click Search.

Subject Guide

Profile Photo
Brynne Campbell