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PsycInfo Database Literature Searching Library Guide: Home

Library guide to help Psychology students use PsycInfo for the literature search for research projects

Books on writing for Psychology

Useful Web sites

Supplemental Materials to Publication Manual of The American Psychological Association. Sixth ed.

Due to space and printing limitations, these materials are referenced from, but not printed in, the actual Manual.

Selected Contents

Chapter 2: Manuscript Structure and Content

Chapter 3: Writing Clearly and Concisely

Chapter 4: The Mechanics of Style

Chapter 7: Reference Examples

Cover of Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edition


This guide will help you do a literature search using the PsycINFO database

How to formulate a search topic and identify subtopics

1. Does your assignment have a title, e.g. The Personality of cat owners?  Read it carefully. Do you need to formulate a title? Write it down.

2. Write a short description of the assignment topic. One or two sentences are enough.

Here is an example:

"An investigation of the personality traits of cat owners:

 Are there personality differences which correlate with the gender differences of owners?"

3. Identify the key Concept Groups (aka Sets) in the title and description.

*Concept Group 1: cat owners                    

Concept Group 2: Personality traits                           

Concept Group 3:  Gender differences

All three Concept Groups are NECESSARY, i.e. they all must be included in your database search (though sometimes later in the  search you may find that you can leave out a Concept Group or some terms)

* I've used different colours to make it easier to identify the different Concept Groups. You wouldn't use colour in this way in a real search

4. Make a list of possible terms for each Concept Group, for example:

Concept Group 1

cat owners

cat people

cat lovers

(and so on...)

Concept Group 2




(and so on...)

Concept Group 3

male or males

female or females




(and so on)


How to write your search terms in the PsycINFO search box(es)

1. How to link the terms together in a search statement:

Linking alternative terms, or groups of alternative terms: they are linked by OR

male or males or female or females or women or men or gender

Round brackets enclose a group or set of related terms

(male or males or female or females or women or men or gender)

BTW. Round brackets are also placed around words that must be treated as a phrase

((cat owners) or (cat lovers) or (cat people))

Tip: Always count the number of brackets to ensure they are equal in number.


Linking necessary terms, or groups of necessary terms:  they are linked by AND

((cat owners) or (cat lovers) or (cat people))  AND (personality or characteristic? or traits)


2. Using ? and * symbols in a search statement

The ? symbol allows you to search -

for the singular and plural forms of words where there is a difference of one letter between the two forms,

m?n  can be used for man or men      

wom?n  can be used for woman or women


for variations of one letter between British and American spelling

colo?r  can be used for color or colour   

organi?ation can be used for organization or organisation


The * symbol is used after word stems to search for variant forms of a word

psycholog* allows you to search for the words - psychology, psychological, psychologist or psychologists

Let's do a quick recap

  1. Read the title and description of your search topic, carefully
  2. Analyse your topic and identify the Concept Groups (aka Sets) that make up your topic
  3. Generate a search term (or terms) for the elements in each Concept Group.
  4. Write out a search statement using any, or all, the elements listed below, as is appropriate
  • your search term (or terms);
  • "round brackets"  [around phrases, and/ or sets of search terms]
  • linking words: AND, OR



Electronic databases

Let's talk tactics 1: "quick and dirty" search

Here is an example of a "quick and dirty" search, i.e. put together a search statement containg some keywords or terms that are the core of your topic

          ((cat people) or (cat owner?)) and personalit*

You are using  the database as a search engine to retrieve descriptions of journal articles, books..., that have been loaded into the database.  (Databases do more, but that comes later.)

 Here are the first five items in the search results list

Note: These are descriptions of journal articles and a chapter in a book, not the actual article or chapter

1,  Children with pets do not show higher empathy: A challenge to current views.Citation Only Available  Daly, Beth; Morton, L.L.; Anthrozoös, Vol 16(4), 2003. pp. 298-314. [Journal Article]
Database: PsycINFO

2. Health benefits and health cost savings due to pets: Preliminary estimates from an Australian national survey.Citation Only Available  Headey, Bruce; Social Indicators Research, Vol 47(2), Jun, 1999. pp. 233-243. [Journal Article]
Database: PsycINFO

3. Human-cat interactions: Relationships with and breed differences between, non-pedigree, Persian and Siamese cats.Citation Only Available  Turner, Dennis C.; In: Companion animals and us: Exploring the relationships between people and pets. Podberscek, Anthony L. (Ed.); Paul, Elizabeth S. (Ed.); Serpell, James A. (Ed.); New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press, 2000. pp. 257-271. [Chapter]
Database: PsycINFO

4. Singly living people and their cats: A study of human mood and subsequent behavior.Citation Only Available  Turner, Dennis C.; Rieger, Gerulf; Anthrozoös, Vol 14(1), 2001. pp. 38-46. [Journal Article]
Database: PsycINFO

5. Spouses and cats and their effects on human mood.Citation Only Available  Turner, Dennis C.; Rieger, Gerulf; Gygax, Lorenz; Anthrozoös, Vol 16(3), 2003. pp. 213-228. [Journal Article]
Database: PsycINFO

Now examine the first page of the search results. Some questions to consider

Are any results relevant?

Are there other terms you can add to the search statement or use as substitutes?


human-cat interactions

Can you think of other ways that you can phrase the topic or the search statement?

(human-cat relations*)

(cats as pets) and owner?

(siamese cats) or (burmese cats) ...


Let's talk tactics 2: why limit results to the results to peer-reviewed journals

What is peer review? Why is it important?

Most academic journals use a peer review process to assess whether an article is suitable for publication. When an author submits an article, the editor will send  copies of of it to  experts in the same field, i.e. peers of the author. The editor's decision, whether to publish or reject an article,  is based on the recommendations of the author's peers. Two of the criteria against which an article is measured are:

  • that the research is of good quality, and
  • the article will contribute to the field of research.

The peer review procedure may vary from journal to journal. (Smyth, 2004, p.460)

Smyth, T.R. 2004. The principles of writing in Psychology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Many of the journals indexed in PsycINFO and other Library databases use a peer review process. Anyone with access to the internet can post anything on the WWW, and there is a lot of junk out there.

By using a Library database  you are less likely to pick junk or misinformation.


Subject Guide

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Alex d'Angelo
Chancellor Oppenheimer Library
+27 21 650 4475