Searching Solutions: The Search Log

Understanding how searching changes from search engine to database.

Tracking Your Searches

Consider creating a Search Log - especially for a Literature or Systematic Review. This can be used to track your searches through the databases. It could be in an Excel or a Word format - which ever works best for you. 

  • For additional information on creating a literature review, visit: 

Tips on Creating a Search Log

First Step

Before you search, identify your question or topic, note your main or key concepts, and find as many related terms as you can.

Question or Topic 

  • What are you searching for? How are you focusing  your question? 
  • Note the key concepts in your question - usually you will have three or four different parts to your question
    • E.g.: How do mental health issues affect the ability of the homeless population to get health care?

Key Concepts

  • These are the key words from your question, these may be "keywords" or topics of focus
  • Keep track of your search terms: Some use a separate column or section for each concept
  • E.g.: 1 - mental health, 2 - homeless, 3 - "health care"

Related terms / Keywords

  • What other terms would an author use instead or in addition to these terms?
  • Remember: Keywords are only what an author will use - and that may change over time and across disciplines
    • E.g.: "Health care": "health services", "access to health care", "community services", Obamacare, Trumpcare, "aged care"
  • Collect the related terms under each key concept
  • Find related terms is by reviewing articles you have already selected for question/topic, then: 
    1. Look for keywords assigned by the author and other terms used by the author in the article (and especially in an abstract)
    2. Search for the article in the USC Libraries catalog and review any Subject Headings applied to each article
    3. If the article is in an indexed database (e.g. PubMed, PsycINFO, etc.), note other Thesaurus terms applied to the article
  • Continue to look for related terms as you search and read and add them to your list - you may need them to search

Now You are ready to search!

Unless you are performing a literature or systematic review, keep a Search Log of searches that find one or more appropriate articles.

  • Search notes: Optional; Used to identify issues that you want to remember
  • Database: Note the search engine (e.g., USC Libraries, Google Scholar) or database (e.g., PsycInfo)  in which you do the search
  • Search Strategy: Note your search strategy (so you can rerun the search if you need to)
  • # of Results: Optional for general searching
  • Notes/Thoughts: Optional; Could be on the search strategy or about the results
  • # Articles Selected: How many articles did you select to read and review?
  • Articles Selected: Note the articles you found (either with a short title or by the full citation)

Hand searching

Hand-searching is the technical term for all other types of searching. You will need to track numbers related to hand-searching if you are doing a formal systematic review. For other projects, you may only want to note where you found articles and citations. Types of hand-searching include:

  • Citation Tracking (See also Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper and Citation Guide)
    • Reviewing and following/selecting from the references/footnotes of an article/chapter/book found in the search
    • Reviewing the references of an article found from hand-searching
    • Reviewing and selecting from the list items citing a article/chapter/book found in the search
    • Reviewing the list of items citing an article found from hand-searching
  • Linked articles tracing
    • Following/Reviewing articles identified from an item in a database search (e.g., from a trial in the database).  

For additional information, see:

Setting up the Search

Keep this form as a separate document or incorporated with your search terms.

Topic/Theme statement/Question: _____________________________

  1.  _________ (Key concept)
    • Related keywords / additional Subject and Thesaurus terms
  2. _________  (Key concept)
    • Related keywords / additional Subject and Thesaurus terms
  3. _________  (Key concept)
    • Related keywords / additional Subject and Thesaurus terms

You will need to use different combinations of terms as you search across the different search engines and databases. Check an available thesaurus for additional keywords and subject terms.

Sample Search Log

Recommended: Keep a record of your search - or at least those searches that resulted in items you could use for your project.

Sample Literature Search Log

(For a larger view of this chart, right click and open in a new tab).

Hand-Searching Log

Hand-Searching Log
(For a larger view of this chart, right click and open in a new tab).

Collecting Your Research - STOP

STOP (Stop your research, Take a moment to Organize and Pull together your project materials)

You've just spent an hour (or six) searching for and downloading materials. It is critical you take a moment to organize everything you just collected. You may have articles, citations, data, search strategies, quotations, notes, and/or more.

  • Put everything from one project in one place. This could be folder on your computer, a physical folder on your shelf and/or a folder in a citation management system. If you are working on two different papers or projects copy the materials that will be used for both into both locations.
  • Create an identifying label. Label your folders so they match with your project and you can find them when you need them.
  • Document. Even if you use a citation management program (e.g., RefWorks), you may want to create a separate bibliography (especially if you found quotations you may want to use later) and/or a separate document that includes the databases you searched and the search strategies (or the keywords) you used.

You may find it helpful to sort your findings within the folder:

  • Background (everything you collected and read - but did not use)
  • Maybe (items that you haven't decided on)
  • Used/Yes (items that will become part of your paper/article/research project)