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Criminal Justice

Information resources for researching criminal justice topics

Create a Search Strategy

Before you build your search strategy, identify some databases for your search based on your topic or subject area. For example, if you are interested in school social work, education, psychology, or social services databases would be more relevant that PubMed. See databases by subject or ask a librarian for help.


Choose search terms

Start to build a search strategy by determining search terms. Search terms or keywords can be people, events, theories, concepts, ideas, periods, movements, eras, places, techniques, media etc. Use terms that describe the concepts in the research question and their synonyms. You can consult a reference text, such as an encyclopedia, for additional background information and to identify additional terms.

For example, if you are interested in researching housing interventions for formerly incarcerated individuals after release, in addition to "prison release" some additional key words might be "reentry," "probation", "parole", and "post release."

You may have to test a few terms to see which terms retrieve the most relevant results. You can look at the subjects or keywords listed in the "details" section of your results for additional terms to try.

Boolean operators


Venn diagrams of Boolean Operators, AND, OR, and NOT, created by a librarian

Cecelia Vetter, CC BY-SA 4.0

AND includes both terms

Example: "prison release" AND "housing"

OR includes either term

Example: "prison release" OR "housing"

NOT excludes term*

Example: "prison release" NOT "housing"

*Note that NOT may exclude results with the term even if a result contains a search term you want included

Database syntax

Using database syntax can help you refine your search. For example using "double quotations" will narrow searches by searching only for that specific phrase rather than each individual term. Using truncation (*) or wildcard (?) can expand your search by expanding the scope of a single term. Note the wildcard (?) symbol doesn't work in Search@UW.

Symbol Use Function Example
"..." Double quotation marks Searches exact phrase "prison release"
* truncation Adds none or more characters sentence* searches sentence, sentenced, sentences, sentencing, etc

Different database platforms (i.e. EBSCO, ProQuest) may use different syntax. Review a more complete list of database syntax.

Building a search strategy


A search strategy (or search string) are the keywords, terms, and syntax used in your search. A typical search strategy includes 2-4 concepts, but may include more keywords.

For example, an initial search for information on housing interventions after prison release:

"prison release" AND housing

But you may want to expand your search to get results on housing interventions after prison release, but also narrow results to only formerly incarcerated women. So instead you might try:

("prison release" OR reentry OR parole OR probation OR post-release) AND (hous* OR home*) AND (women OR female*)

Refine your results

User the search filters to narrow your search. Common limiters are resource type (scholarly article, book, etc), date, and subject. In Search@UW there are also filters for peer-reviewed articles only, or available online only.

What if my search produces

  • Irrelevant results? Try different search terms or a subject-specific database
  • Too many results? Search is too broad and should be narrowed. Use filters to limit search or add more search terms with AND
  • Too few results? Search is too narrow and should be broadened. Try broader or less specific search terms or use OR to expand concepts. Take note of subject terms or keywords used in articles that are relevant to your search

Advanced Searching

Search@UW and databases have an advanced search function that helps you be more specific and get more relevant results. You can specify searching for terms in specific fields, for example in only the title, abstract, or subject fields. Some other advanced features can include publication dates, languages, type of resource, and sometimes methodology.

Ebsco advanced search screen with keyword search in abstract field and controlled vocabulary search in the subject field

Controlled Vocabularies

Controlled vocabularies assign a subject heading to index different concepts to the same term. Examples of controlled vocabularies the Library of Congress Subject Headings (as seen in the Search@UW online catalog) and MeSH (Medical Subject Headings). Individual databases, like PsycInfo and CINAHL, also have their own subject headings listed in a Thesaurus or Index. 

Example: To search for group interventions, you can use keywords like groups OR "group work", which may be different than the subject terms. Below are the controlled vocabulary terms for group work and scope note, when available.

Library of Congress: "Social group work"

MeSH: "Self-help groups"

PsycInfo: "Group Counseling", "Group intervention", "Social Group Work", "Support groups"

When you are searching use a combination of controlled vocabularies and keywords.