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#1 Finding Good Search Terms
- Use terms found in your background reading on the subject (reference sources example)
- Ask other people in the field for terms used to describe your topic
- Use the Thesaurus or Subject Terms listings, if available, in the databases you are searching (example)
- When you find a record for an item that is useful to you, look at its subject headings or descriptors for more ideas (example)
#2 Using Your Search Terms
If your search terms are more than single worlds, use quotation marks to show that you want the terms to be found together. The search will look for exactly what you place in the quotation marks, so be sure there are no mistakes.
Search for Adam Smith = 38,700,000 results
Search for "Adam Smith" = 2,730,000 results
Search for theory of relativity = 3,430,000 results
Search for "theory of relativity" = 856,000 results
Combining search terms with AND will:
- Reduce the number of results
- Make the search focus more specifically on your topic
Search for "college student" = 1.2 billion results
Search for politics = 296 million results
Search for "college student" AND politics = 43 million results more focused on your topic
Search for "college student" AND politics AND "2008 election" = 543,000 more relevant results
Combining search terms with OR will:
- Expand your search and increase number of results
- Give your search flexibility to find alternate terms
Search for film = 601,786 results
Search for movie = 199,781 results
Search for film OR movie = 642,906 results that mention either film or movie, or both
Search for "middle school" = 21,401 results that mention "middle school"
Search for "junior high" = 7,261 results
Search for "middle school" OR "junior high" = 28,177 results that mention either "middle school" or "junior high", or both
Combining search terms with NOT will:
- Decrease your search results
- Increase the relevancy of your results by telling the search to exclude certain terms
Search for "Hunger Games" = 745 results
Search for "Hunger Games" NOT movie = 487 results
Search for cloning = 42,736 results
Search for cloning NOT human = 30,325 results
Truncation is a way of giving your search tool flexibility to find alternate endings for your search term.
Why it's helpful: Search engines match your terms to results; they will not find an alternate version of your term. Truncation tells the search to match the root of your term and gives it freedom to find whatever endings it can.
- Gene! will bring back gene, genes, genetic, genetics, genetically, general, generally, etc
- Liv* will bring back results for live, lives, lively, livelihood, liver, livery, etc
- Child$ will bring back child, children, childhood, etc
How to do it: Shorten your search term to its base or root form. Then add a truncation symbol to the end of your term. Note: truncation symbols vary by search tool.
Truncation Symbols by adstarkel. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
#3 Using Search Tool Features
Often, these features are easiest to use (or only available in) the Advanced Search option. (example, another example)
- Try searching only the Abstract, or even the Title field, rather than the whole item - usually with Advanced Search (searching the Abstract for the term "study" can often lead to research studies)
- Try searching by Subject, rather than by Keyword (or by a combination of Subjects and Keywords or other fields)
- Use other limiters, if appropriate, such as only a specific type of publication (Peer Reviewed, for example) or only a specific time period
Most search tools have ways to limit the results list and the options are often on the left side of the results page. Limiters usually include date ranges, topics, languages, authors, and formats.
#4 Using Leads and Clues
- Look at the bibliographies of items that are closely related to your topic. Some of these sources may be very helpful or may in turn lead you to useful sources. (example)
- To find newer sources that reference an item you found, you can search for the item in Google Scholar and click on the Cited by link (example)
- When you find a helpful item, look at its subject terms and try a subject search using those terms. (example)
#5 General Life Skills That Are Also Applicable To Searching
- Check your search to see if you entered it and spelled it as you intended
- Take a break and try again later
- Ask for help
- Read the "instructions"
- Check to see if the database you are searching is appropriate for your topic. Information about the database can usually found by clicking an i or About or similar button or tab. (example) With EBSCO databases, click on Choose Databases and then Detailed View for this info (example)
- Check the Help feature or Search Tips (or sometimes it will be a ?) to see if you are entering your searches correctly for that database (example)
- Your skills will improve with practice - especially if you pay attention to what works in different situations