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General Search Strategies for Databases

Keyword Searching

Break your research topic or question into keywords. In databases, plug these keywords into the Titles, Abstracts or Keywords search fields.

Phrase Searching

You can search using phrases to make your results more specific. To make sure the database looks for the multiple terms to appear right next to each other, put quotation marks around your search query. Be careful to not limit the search by using too many words in the phrase. Stick to using established phrases (words that you can reasonably expect authors/researchers to use).


"job satisfaction"

"George Washington's farewell address"

"metabolic disorder"

Truncation & Wildcard Symbols

Truncation allows for searches of a word that could have multiple endings. This method is very useful when you know one of your search terms has several endings, but all of the variations represent basically the same idea.

Wildcard Symbols:

  • Asterisk wildcard (*) - is used at the end of a word or between words where variations may be possible.
    • example: music* can return results such as; music, musical, musician
  • Question mark wildcard (?) - wom?n will return results for woman or women

Boolean Operators

Many databases use Boolean operators to combine keywords in database searches. Use Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT) to connect your search terms or keywords together to either narrow or broaden the results.

  • Use AND in a search to:
    • tell the database that ALL search terms must be present in the resulting records
    • narrow your results
    • example: "gene expression" AND placenta AND equine
  • Use OR in a search to:
    • connect two or more similar concepts (synonyms)
    • broaden your results, telling the database that ANY of your search terms can be present in the resulting records
    • example: "extracellular matrix proteins" OR "transport proteins"
  • Use NOT in a search to:
    • exclude words from your search
    • narrow your search, telling the database to ignore concepts that may be implied by your search terms
    • example: horse NOT zebra
  • Search order (Nesting): Be aware of the logical order in which words are connected
    • Databases usually recognize AND as the primary operator, and will connect concepts with AND together first
    • If you use a combination of AND and OR operators in a search, enclose the OR-connected words together in parentheses
    • example: endometrium AND (pregnancy OR postpartum)

Subject Terms and Database Thesauri

Subject terms are controlled vocabularies that describe the subject/focus of each book or article within catalogs. If you have questions about the vocabulary within the database your are searching within, look for Thesaurus. You can consult terms in database thesauri for ideas on the best keywords to use in your searches. Type in the term that best describes your topic and see what the thesaurus has that might better describe that topic. Using the thesaurus can help you figure out which synonym to use, which spelling to use, or which combination of terms to use.

Specialty/Specialized Databases may use terms unique to them or within a field of profession. For example, the catalog and databases of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), including MEDLINE and PubMed, prescribe Medical Subject Headings (MeSH).

A lot of databases will show you Suggested Topics or Suggested Subjects once you have run your search. Look for these suggestions to find subject terms that are related to your keyword search.

Search Fields & Limits

For focused results refine searches by choosing indexes to check the search terms against. Common database fields include: Author, Article Title, Abstract, Journal Title, Subject. Searches usually can be limited to Full Text or by Language, Publication Date or Material Type.

Need Help?

Learn more about the library and how to use our resources with a Book-a-Librarian training customized to your department or agency.

Researcher's Bootcamp Training Archive by Reference Services

search key on keyboard

Delve into the world of research with the Researcher's Bootcamp. In these sessions you will learn how to create a search string, use reliable research resources, find law and legislation, and use reference managers to keep your research organized. The session order is as follows:

1. Conducting Internet Research Part 1

2. Conducting Internet Research Part 2

3. Finding Laws and Legislation

4. Reference Managers