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Introduction to Social Work Research


Getting Started with Social Work Research

The search box on the library homepage provides a basic search across library holdings.  See the guide below for an explanation of how to effectively use the basic search:

As you work toward completing your research projects, remember that the research process is NOT linear. It's usually more of a circular process and there may be many times where you jump back and forth between the stages of your research. While not everyone's research process will look exactly the same, the following model can give you a better idea of how the research process often works.

Think of scholarly papers like a conversation. A paper takes a look at what people are saying on a particular topic and then adds something new to the conversation based on their own research. A literature review is how scholars get caught up on the conversation so they will know what to say or ask next.

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis.

A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates.

A research question is what forms and guides your literature review. It is the question that you want the literature to answer for you. A research question should be specific, focused, and concise.

To develop a research question, start with a general topic of interest to you. You'll want to do some preliminary and background research on this topic to think through what specific questions you might have.


Sample Topic: impact of social media on adolescent physical activity

Sample Research Question: Can social media serve as an effective tool for increasing physical activity among adolescents?


Need more guidance on developing your topic into a research question? Check out this video from the library at Northern Kentucky University.

In order to search most effectively for articles that pertain to your research topic, take a little time at the beginning of your project to plan out your search strategy.

1. Break up your topic/research question into it's primary concepts

  • i.e. What impact does tobacco use have on the lung health of teenagers?
  • Population - teenagers
  • Problem - tobacco use
  • Outcome - lung health

2. Brainstorm synonyms for your terms (see more in next tab)

  • i.e. teenagers, teens, adolescents, youth, young adults, juvenile

3. Add quotation marks around exact phrases and be sure to include both singular and plural

  • i.e. "young adults", "young adult"

4. Search one concept at a time using ORs to include all of your synonyms and then combine your searches with AND

  • Search 1: teenagers OR teens OR adolescents OR youth OR "young adults" OR "young adult" OR juveniles
  • Search 2: tobacco OR smoking OR vaping OR cigarettes OR nicotine
  • Search 3: lung health OR "respiratory health" OR "respiratory distress" OR dyspnea OR asthma OR "pulmonary disorder" OR "pulmonary disorders" OR "pulmonary disease" OR "pulmonary diseases"

1. Save time, prepare to research!

  • Break your research question into key concepts (you'll connect these in your paper to make an original argument)
  • For each of these concepts, brainstorm multiple keywords

Sample Topic:

   Services for college students with disabilities 

Key Concepts


college students


Related Keywords

assistive tech*

higher education


  • Try this keyword tool to brainstorm online and send the results to yourself.

2. Combine keywords using AND and OR:

  • Too many results? Try using quotation marks around an exact phrase. Ex: "students with disabilities"
  • Still too many results? Narrow using AND. Ex:  "students with disabilities" AND "assistive technology"
  • Too few results? Broaden using OR. Ex: "students with disabilities" AND (campus OR college OR university OR higher education)
  • Put parentheses around synonyms.
  • The asterisk finds multiple endings from a root word. Ex: wom* will bring back women, woman's, wombat, etc.

3. Brush up on the search tools available:

  • Here are search tips for Google.
  • Databases often include their own search tips. Tip: Look for a help link or a gear symbol.

Interfaces and search options vary across databases, but best practices for searching are relatively consistent across interfaces. No matter which database you choose, remember these important tips...

1) Don't search wth your topic as a single phrase! Determine the key concepts of your topic. Then place each concept in its own search bar.  For example...

Image of sample database search: line 1, college students; line 2, retention; line 3, first generation

2) Use ORs to string together synonyms or related terms for core concepts...

Image of sample database search: line 1, college students OR undergraduates; line 2, retention OR completion OR persistence; line 3, first generation OR first in family

3) Use truncation, when appropriate. Adding an * to the end of a word will catch all forms of that word. For example, teach* will return teach, teachers, teaching, etc.

Image of sample database search: line 1, college students OR undergraduates; line 2, retention OR complet* OR persist*; line 3, first generation OR first in family

4) Use proximity searches to force a relationship between two terms. This isn't always needed, but is sometimes super helpful. Completion is a common word that may come up in many context. The search below means that the word complete or completion must appear within two words of college in the article title and abstracts.

Image of sample database search: line 1, college students OR undergraduates; line 2, retention OR (college n2 complet*) OR persistence; line 3, first generation OR first in family

5) Look for the "peer reviewed" limit in each database. You can set this limit on the main search screen (before you search) or narrow your results after you've started your search.

6) Set date limits as appropriate for your topic..

Image of database "limit to" box: Full text, (checked) Scholarly (peer reviewed) Journals, Cover Story, and Publication Date slider

Writing Help

The University Writing Center is available to help you with your writing assignments. The UWC can help with your writing at any stage, including: finding a topic for a paper, organizing ideas and clarifying thoughts, and drafting and revising papers. Make an appointment on their website for a consultation with a writing coach.

Liaison Librarian for Behavioral Sciences

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Grant Hardaway

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