Skip to Main Content

Indigenous Health

What should you type into that search bar?

Academic databases process language differently than search engines. To search efficiently, you need to:

  • clarify your research question
  • format your question as a search phrase the database can correctly parse

Step one - the clinical question:

State your research idea as a clinical question, which should be specific and answerable:

example: How effective is the use of peer support groups in increasing breastfeeding among first-time Indigenous mothers?

Clinical questions often follow the format of PICO (person, intervention, comparison, outcome), which is a helpful way of distilling only the important parts of your research question. However, any research question that is as short as possible while containing all key ideas will work.


Step two - Boolean commands

Databases don't recognize sentences. Use boolean commands instead to communicate to the database. Boolean tells the database what is required, or whether alternatives are acceptable.

How Boolean works on Halloween:



How boolean works with our example:


Indigenous mothers AND breastfeeding AND peer support groups

explanation: The boolean "AND" commands ensure that all of the words in this phrase are required to be in article results

Indigenous mothers AND breastfeeding AND peer support groups NOT social media

explanation: All of the words in this phrase are required to be in article results, except "social media". Articles that have all of the words but also have "social media" will be excluded from the search results.


HOWEVER, you need more formatting to make the above phrase work correctly!


Step three - Quotation Marks

If you search a multi-word phrase, you need to put quotation marks around that phrase in order for the database to understand that the words need to appear together in the article results. Otherwise, one word might be in the title, and another in the abstract.

Using our example phrase above, without quotation marks, you may get articles on how peer-pressure contributes to the use of plants indigenous to Sweden by mothers to facilitate the production of breast milk. Which would be interesting, but not what you're after.

Correct use of quotation marks:

"Indigenous mothers" AND breastfeeding AND "peer support groups"

Step four - Parentheses:

Why search for a single term when you can search for many? You can use parentheses sets together with boolean to list out optional synonyms or spellings for a concept that you will accept in your article results. Various correct usages of parentheses:

"Indigenous mothers" AND (breastfeeding OR "breast feeding" OR "breast milk") AND "peer support groups"

((Indigenous OR "Native American" OR Alaska Native) AND mothers) AND breastfeeding AND "peer support groups"


Including synonyms for each of the concepts in your search will allow you to find articles even when the authors are using different words for the concept that you're looking for. You can also nest sets of parentheses to indicate words that need to be grouped together. In the above example, multiple synonyms for Indigenous people in North America are together in a parentheses set, and also share another parentheses set with the word "mothers", which means that any of the synonyms for "Indigenous" will be accepted as long as they appear grouped with the word "mothers".


Step five: use your search phrase in databases

Structuring your research question with the above techniques gives you the search phrase you need for database searching.


Some databases, like PubMed, have a single search box where you can paste your whole search phrase:


And other databases like CINAHL have multiple search boxes where you can separately paste in the different parentheses sets of your search, and toggle the drop-down buttons to have the correct boolean commands: