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Search Strategies

Learning how to craft sophisticated search queries will decrease the amount of time you spend researching and improve the relevance of your search results. Below are some common strategies for improving your searches.  Please note: Not all databases support the same search features.  If you get an error message, no results, or too many results, revise your search or ask a librarian for assistance.

Combining Concepts 



The boolean character AND is used to combine two or more search concepts.

Search results must contain both concept A and concept B, which narrows the search and produces fewer results.


• students AND self-assessment

• Shakespeare AND sonnets

• financial ratios AND small businesses

• nonprofit AND leadership AND innovation

• chocolate AND strawberry

Google Scholar format: chocolate strawberry


The boolean character OR is used to add synonyms or similar words
to your search.

Search results can contain either keyword A or keyword B,
which broadens the search and produces more results.


• coffee OR caffeine OR tea

• doctors OR physicians

• managers OR management OR leadership OR leaders OR boss

• teenagers OR teens OR adolescents

• 1960s OR sixties OR 60s


The boolean characters NOT or AND NOT are used to eliminate
specific results, especially when a word has multiple meanings. It should be used carefully since it is easy to accidentally eliminate useful results.

Search results are limited to concept A and exclude results
that mention concept B. 


• AIDS NOT feline

• Saturn NOT car

• seal NOT navy

• violence NOT guns

• Google Scholar format: violence -guns
Phrase Searches, Truncation, and Wildcards
Phrase Searches

Quotation marks are placed around a phrase.  For instance, a search for “special education” will find articles on "special education" and will exclude articles that just mention “education” or just mention “special.”

This technique can be used to find quotations, song lyrics, and common titles.  It is also useful when you want to include stopwords in your search, such as “a” or “the,” which would normally be excluded by the search engine.

• “alternative dispute resolution”

• "lactation consultant"

• "Malcolm X" 

• “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

• “heart attack”

• ScienceDirect format: {heart attack}

The asterisk (*) character finds word suffixes, eliminating the need to type all variations of a word into your search.

Be careful to include enough letters.  For instance, dis* will find disability and disabled, but it will also find disorder, disaster, and disease.

• disab* finds disability, disabilities, and disabled

• Afric* finds Africa and Africans

• research* finds research, researchers, and researching

Not supported by Google Scholar, which automatically includes alternative suffixes


Some databases allow you to use the question mark character as a letter substitute.

If an article ends with a question mark, exclude it from the search to prevent incorrect search results.

• wom?n finds woman, women, and womyn

• psych????y finds psychiatry and psychology, but not psychotherapy

Not supported by: PubMed, Project Muse, Google Scholar,  SAGE.  Use "OR" to find alternative spellings

Developing your Search
  1.   Briefly describe your search in a single sentence using words and phrases with which you are familiar. Example: How can microloans alleviate poverty?
  2.   Identify the major concepts in your topic, i.e. microloans and poverty.
  3.   Brainstorm synonyms and potential search terms for each concept.

    Microloan Search Terms
    Poverty Search Terms
     Kiva (microcredit charity)
     Muhammad Yunus (microcredit activist)
  4.   Enter your search terms in a library database.  Use search boxes and search characters to group concepts. 


Database Limiters

You can limit your search to peer-reviewed articles published in the last 10 years using the database limiters.

Bibliography Mining

Image of an article's bibliography, which is a great place to find additional articles and books on your topic/

Subject Searching versus Keyword Searching
Subject Searching
Keyword Searching

A subject search only searches in the subject/descriptor field.  If you do not know a subject heading to search on, do a  keyword search first.  When you find a good resource, check out the subject headings listed in the record and use it as a gateway to find similar materials.

Note: you can combine subject headings and keywords in your search 
 A keyword search does not use a controlled vocabulary and will find your search terms in any number of descriptive fields (title, abstract, etc.).  Before beginning a keyword search, it is a good practice to spend a few minutes brainstorming synonyms and alternative spellings.  A thesaurus can help with this process.
Quick Comparison
  • Narrow search (Retrieves potentially fewer items)
  • Searches only in the subject/descriptor field
  • Search terms must be selected from a controlled vocabulary list like the Library of Congress Subject Headings or a database’s thesaurus
  • High degree of relevancy 
  • Broad Search (Retrieves a potentially large number of items)
  • Searches in any number of descriptive fields like title, author, subject, abstract and/or the full text of a document
  • Search terms can be any concepts or words/phrases that you choose
  • High degree of inclusiveness
 Indians of North America
 Motion Pictures
 United States—History—Civil War, 1861-1865 
 Native Americans
 Movies or films
 United States and civil war 
Use When
  • A subject heading on your exact topic exists
  • Want precise results immediately
  • There is no subject heading for your topic (topic or concept is very current) or database does not allow subject searches
  • Subject headings are too broad or too specific