The objective was to gain an overview of researchers experiences of searching the literature, with particular reference to the use of optimal search strategies (OSSs) and searching for qualitative research studies. A 13-item semi-structured questionnaire investigating search behaviour was distributed to members of the Cochrane Qualitative Methods Network. Follow-up interviews were conducted with a subset of respondents to explore issues raised and clarify points of ambiguity. Findings were analysed using data reduction, data displays and verification techniques. Eighty-six per cent of distributed questionnaires were returned. All respondents reported searching electronic databases as part of their literature search, with 80% expressing a preference for searching alone or with colleagues. Forty-one per cent indicated that they consider a database search to be only one aspect of a comprehensive literature search. The rigour and availability of OSSs was a concern for 30% of respondents. Twenty-five per cent of respondents had searched for qualitative studies, although the difficulty of locating this type of literature was considered problematic because of the varied use of the term 'qualitative'. Whilst the majority of respondents reported using OSSs in some capacity, reservations were expressed about their ability to facilitate a comprehensive search. Replies indicated a belief that OSSs can reduce the sensitivity of a search, and might limit the breadth of coverage required. A greater appreciation of the availability and purpose of OSSs-including the ability to optimize either sensitivity or recall-is needed if this enhanced approach to accurate data retrieval and potential improvement in time management is to become widespread.