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Finding Qualitative Research Articles

This guide provides tips and information to guide you in your search for qualitative research articles through databases such as CINAHL, PubMed, and APA PsycInfo.

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Qualitative research is defined as “research that derives data from observation, interviews, or verbal interactions and focuses on the meanings and interpretations of the participants (Holloway & Wheeler, 1995).

Qualitative research can be challenging to find as these methodologies are not always well-indexed in bibliographic databases. This guide will provide some tips and information to guide you in your search for qualitative research articles through databases such as CINAHL, PubMed, and APA PsycInfo.  Searching in Discover@UMSL is not your best option. 

For Any Database

Strategy 1: Use Subject Headings

Databases use controlled vocabulary (known as thesaurus terms, subject terms, or subject headings) to categorize each record and make it easier for searchers to locate. PubMed, for example, uses Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), a highly structured index of terminology. The subject headings vary for each database according to their indexing system. The term qualitative research is indexed in PubMed as “Qualitative Research” or “Nursing Methodology Research,” whereas in CINAHL the subject heading “Qualitative Studies” is complemented by more detailed terms, including “Phenomenological Research” and “Grounded Theory.”

Strategy 2: Use Keywords

This strategy uses keywords that might specifically identify qualitative research, and searches the titles, abstracts, and keywords of records held in the databases. Some keywords include qualitative, ethnograph*, phenomenol*, ethnonurs*, grounded theor*, purposive sample, hermeneutic*, heuristic*, semiotics, lived experience*, life experiences, narrative*, 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*. (The asterisks allow databases to search for variations of a root word, such as ethnography or ethnographic.)

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.

To learn more about filters that exist for each of the databases, use the menu on the left side of this page.


Flemming, K., & Briggs, M. (2007). Electronic searching to locate qualitative research: Evaluation of three strategies. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 57(1), 95–100.

Gorecki, C. A., Brown, J. M., Briggs, M., & Nixon, J. (2010). 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, 66(3), 645–652.

Grant, M. J. (2004). 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 & Libraries Journal, 21(1), 21–32.

Holloway, I., & Wheeler, S. (1995). Ethical issues in qualitative nursing research. Nursing Ethics, 2(3), 223–232. 

Shaw, R. L., Booth, A., Sutton, A. J., Miller, T., Smith, J. A., Young, B., Jones, D. R., & Dixon-Woods, M. (2004). Finding qualitative research: An evaluation of search strategies. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 4, 5.