Use the techniques in a database to get the most out of your online searches.
The tips outlined below work on most databases, but some may have their own specific quirks. Have a look at our Database Guides for more information on individual databases.
For tips on searching elsewhere online, check out our guide on Grey Literature.
Tips And Techniques For Searching
Your Search Topic
Does your assignment have a set research question? Or do you need to develop your own?
Try breaking down your research question to help you find out which topics to include in your search:
Take a look at your research question and find the words that refer closely to the subject of your research.
So for 'To what extent does exercise improve the quality of life for people with diabetes?'
The keywords would be:
- Quality of Life
Once you have keywords, try to think of other ways of saying the same thing e.g. paramedic, first responder, emergency medical technician, EMT.
Different words/phrases with identical meanings are also called synonyms.
It helps to think of as many synonyms as possible as this will help you find the most relevant results.
Try to think of abbreviations (e.g. UK, United Kingdom), plurals (medicine, medicines), alternative spellings (programme, program) and different forms of English (disc, disk).
Synonyms from a set of keywords could include:
- Exercise: exercises, sport, physical activity
- Quality of Life: wellbeing, well-being
- Diabetes: diabetic, diabetes mellitus
Most databases support Booleans. These are instructions that tell a database to change a search in different ways.
We recommend using Booleans as they can help you find more of the results you want, and remove the ones you don't.
The most common Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT:
This will narrow your search to results that include every keyword.
Consider using AND when your searches return too many irrelevant results.
A search for 'business AND management' returns results with both words in the same sources.
Adding 'AND people' reduces results to those including the word 'people'.
This broadens your search to include each keyword by itself or in combination.
Consider using OR when your searches return too few relevant results.
A search for 'business OR management' will find instances of one or both words in the same sources.
Adding 'OR people' will increase the number of combinations to include the word 'people'.
Consider using NOT when your searches return irrelevant topics.
A search for 'business' by itself will return a lot of results, many of which may also include management as a topic.
Adding 'NOT management' will show results for business and remove any mentioning management..
Sometimes keywords are strings of several words, forming phrases, e.g. artificial intelligence.
Searches for artificial intelligence in a database returns results for artificial AND intelligence.
Results will contain mention of artificial and intelligence, but may not relate to AI as a topic.
The following example illustrates how phrase searching can keep your results relevant:
A search for human rights will return results for human AND rights.
Results may not include human rights as a topic.
By adding either 'inverted commas' or "speech marks", it will narrow the search to the phrase as it appears.
We recommend you do this whenever your keywords contain a phrase of two or more words.
Wildcards help search for different forms of words (create, creative, created, creating etc.)
They can also replace letters in words to search for alternate spellings (woman, women).
This helps by saving you time when creating and replicating searches.
Some words have several endings based on a common root.
To get the best results for a search on nursing, you need to search 'nurse OR nurses OR nursing'.
Using an asterisk (*) after the root 'nurs*' will search for any other word ending.
Note: this will search for all words that share the same root, such as 'nursery'.
Some words have variant spellings in UK and US English. An example of this is the word 'defence' (UK) or 'defense' (US).
You could search a database for 'defence OR defense'.
A question mark (?) replaces one omitted letter in a word, so a search for 'defen?e' will return the same results.
Note: This second search returned extra results for 'defende' (Portuguese for defence).