Search strategies

Introduction Top

Having considered early searching, and having selected some relevant databases, you are ready to start in-depth or comprehensive searching.

While search engines rely mostly on search algorithms and employ fuzzy searching, library databases consist and use searchable records of items. You can search different parts of a record directly. For example, you can limit your search to the 'author' or 'title' field. This allows for specific searching and enables control of your search. To get the most out of searching databases you will need to understand the language or syntax of the key databases in your area of interest.

Example: Database record

Deciding how to search Top

Some common ways of searching include keyword searching, field searching and subject searching

Keyword searching

Most databases search keywords (or words anywhere) unless you choose another type of search. The database looks for a match for your keyword in any field in the record. This means that your search will retrieve more information or have higher recall but be less precise than other searches.

Watch the video: Keyword searching (YouTube video, 2m38s)

Field searching

Some databases allow searching in specific fields such as the title, author, or subject. This type of searching is quite specific and will retrieve fewer results than a keyword search. A search text box is often associated with a drop-down menu, from which search fields can be selected. By using field searching you can increase the precision of the search thereby retrieving fewer results.

Example: Searching for bank in the author field retrieves results by authors called 'Bank', while searching for bank in the keyword field might retrieve results about financial institutions or rivers.

Example: Searching for constructivism in the article title field is a quick way of finding articles about that theory, rather than article that merely mention it in passing.

Subject searching

Subject searching can increase the relevance of your results. Each database record lists subject terms. Also known as subject headings, descriptors or index terms, these are a set of standard terms or controlled vocabulary that are defined and used by indexers of the database to describe a subject so it can be easily found. There are many terms that mean the same thing, using subject headings aims to bring these like terms together under a single term or phrase.

Watch the video: Subject searching (YouTube video, 3m02s)

Search syntax for search statementsTop

Subject, keyword and author searching allows you to create effective searches. To search more efficiently, combine terms in a logical way using Boolean and/or proximity operators, truncation and parentheses. Boolean operators form the basis of database logic. They connect your search words together to either narrow or broaden your search. Let's consider AND, OR, NOT.

Boolean operators - the 'AND' operator

Use AND to connect different concepts. Using AND directs the database to show records that include all the search terms that were used in the search. All search terms will be listed in the results. The more search terms connected by AND, the more specific your search will be and fewer records will be retrieved. Be aware in some databases AND is implied.

In summary using AND in a search will:

  • Narrow your results
  • All search terms will be present in the results

Example: The search construction AND sustainability finds records with both terms.

Watch the video: Using AND (YouTube video, 48s)

Boolean operators - the 'OR' operator

Using OR broadens the search to include all records that contain any terms used in the search. This type of search links like terms or synonyms together. Each time you add another term with the OR operator you are potentially increasing the number of records that will be retrieved. You can use OR to search for synonyms, alternate spellings, or abbreviations.

In summary using OR in a search will:

  • Broaden your results, directing the database that any of your search terms can appear in the results
  • Allows you to connect 2 or more like terms (synonyms) alternate spellings or abbreviations

Example: The search construction OR building finds records with either or both terms.

Watch the video: Using OR (YouTube video, 50s)

Boolean operators - the 'NOT' operator

Use the NOT operator to exclude certain words from your search. Using NOT narrows the search by excluding specific terms. Be aware that this is a powerful search operator and may also exclude records.

In summary using NOT in a search will:

  • Exclude words from your search
  • Narrow your search

Example: The search success NOT money excludes any record with 'money' in the text.

Phrase searching

Some databases assume that a string of words will be searched as a phrase whereas others will search on each individual word. Phase searching tells the database to look for two or more words in the exact order they are entered. Use the quotation marks " " to enclose a phrase.

Example: "climate change" finds that exact topic, excluding irrelevant results about 'change'

Proximity operator

Proximity or adjacency operators allow you to locate one word within a determined distance from another. Words that are close to each other are more likely to be related than those that are further apart. Using proximity operators will limit your search, returning a smaller group of results. Proximity operators differ between databases. Check the database help screens to find out which operators are appropriate to the database you are using.

Watch the video: Google's proximity operator (YouTube video, 1m48s)

Truncation and wildcards

Truncation symbols are useful to find variations of words.

Example: The search creat* will retrieve create, creates, creator, creative, creativity etc.

Be careful to use a word stem that relates to your meaning.

Example: The search polic* will return policy and policies, as well as police and policing.

Watch the video: Truncation (YouTube video, 27s)

Wildcards are used to find different spellings of words, particularly American or British variations.

Example: The term organi?ation will find both 's' or 'z' spellings.

Truncation and wildcard symbols vary between databases and internet tools, so check the help section of each database.

Watch the video: Wildcards (YouTube video, 26s)

Nesting terms

Nesting search terms within parentheses () controls the logic of the search so you can group synonyms in sets. The part of the search within the parentheses is performed first.

Example: The search ("respiratory tract infection" or bronchiolitis) and management finds articles about the management of either respiratory tract infections or bronchiolitis.


You may also use limiters to narrow your search. This is often best done in the results screen to increase the relevancy of result after a comprehensive search. Limiters include:

  • Subject
  • Format
  • date
  • Institutional affiliation
  • full text or peer reviewed articles

Search engines such as Google have their own limiters including:

  • domain - restrict to a country, type of organisation or information provider (.au, .edu or .gov for Australian, educational or government information)
  • format or file type - such as PDF, PPT, Excel, audio or video files to focus your search
  • region
  • last updated

Step your searches

Searching is a process finding out what is available via a search tool, changing and developing your search statements accordingly, and limiting the view to construct the best set of result possible. A database has different screens specialising in advanced search, refining results and working with results. Think about how you will search. What will be your search process? This step by step approach may be useful in determining your method:

  1. Determine search objective: Identify initial key concepts, synonyms and alternative term
  2. Conduct an early or exploratory keyword search.
  3. Evaluate results for most relevant records and glean suitable alternative terms
  4. Comprehensive keyword search: broaden your search with alternative terms for comprehensive results
  5. Subject & keyword search: Scan for subject terms, use the drop-down indexes
  6. Apply limiters to results to increase relevancy (subject, date, format)
  7. Export citations and download files

Activity – map the search process Top

Map the search process for your research topic by answering Question 2 of your Resource Log. It will be a record of the terms, synonyms and strategies you have used to collect information, as well as the tools you have consulted. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the database (See Module 4.1)?

Summary Top

In completing this section, you have produced a list of search terms from your research question and created effective search statements. You have learned how to make use of Boolean, proximity and truncation operators to create precise search statements to adapt searches to optimise results.