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.
Gorecki CA, Brown JM, Briggs M, Nixon J. Evaluation of five search strategies in retrieving qualitative patient-reported electronic data on the impact of pressure ulcers on quality of life.Journal of Advanced Nursing 2010 Mar;66(3):645-52.
Grant MJ. How does your searching grow? A survey of search preferences and the use of optimal search strategies in the identification of qualitative research. Health Information and Libraries Journal 2004;21(1):21-32.