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Social Work Research Guide

A guide for conducting research in the Social Work program

Keyword Searching

Be specific

Don't think like Google. When you search the databases, be specific with your search terms. The database will search for each word you type in, so only include those terms that are most important for your topic. A search for, "differences in treatment for the mentally ill who are poor vs. the wealthy," will give you unexpected results because the database will search for each of those words- even those that aren't specific to your topic (in, for, the, who, are, vs). A better search to start off with would be "mental illness AND poor." That word AND is important- it's a search operator. 

Search Operators

Using those specific terms for you topic is important, but there's one more step- connecting those terms in a meaningful way. To do this, we use Boolean operators (named after a dead white guy from the 1800s whose work kind of made computers possible). These operators are used to define the relationship between our search terms.  

  • OR will broaden your search by searching for items with either term: poverty OR low income will retrieve papers that have at least one of the words.

  • AND will narrow your results by only searching for items that contain both terms: poverty AND mental illness will only retrieve papers that include both words in the text.

  • NOT will narrow your search by excluding results that contain that term: poverty AND mental illness NOT veterans will retrieve papers that discuss severe mental illness but not about veterans.

Subject Searching

Subject headings are similar to tags in that they are assigned to works that are related to the topic. Unlike a keyword search, subject heading searches will find books that don't necessarily have the term in the title or abstract but are about that subject. You can think of a subject heading results list as a list of recommended books on a topic. 

Subject Terms in Social Work

Subject terms allow you to find books, articles, videos, and more on your specific topic.  Combined with search operators, as explained above, they help to narrow in on a topic.  The following are subject terms that can guide you in your social work research:

Aging Maternal & Child Health
Child Abuse People with Disabilities
Children's Services Policy Poverty
Discrimination Sexual Orientation
Domestic Violence Social Service
Families Social Work 
Grief Social Work Education 
Homelessness Social Work with Minorities
Homeless Youth Social Work Policy
Hospice Substance Use
Incarceration Transgender People


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