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Ready, Set, Research: Search Strategies and Tips

A guide prepared for the Success Center Workshop.

Plan Your Search

Think about your topic for your project and ask yourself the following questions.

  • What subject area(s) might your topic fall under?  Is your topic interdisiplinary?
  • What keywords can you use to describe your topic? Consider synonyms or varient spellings.

Then consider the types of sources that you need for your research: 

  • Do you need primary or secondary sources? Popular or scholarly publications?
  • Do you need "up-to-the-minute" information or are you looking for materials that cover a specific time period?
  • Are you looking for materials covering a specific geographic area or that were published in a certain place?
  • What languages do you need material in?

The answers to these questions will provide valuable information that will help you select the best databases for your topic and develop your search strategy.

Review Database Descriptions

Selecting the best database for your needs can make a difference between search success and failure.  When you select a database, be sure to review the database descriptions and consider the following:

  • What subject areas are covered in the database?
    The database description will also provide more detailed information about what subject areas are covered in the resources.


  • What years does the database cover?
    Knowing the dates of coverage for the database is very important. can prevent you from selecting the wrong database.  Some databases contain only newer articles, while others only index older publications. A few dabases, like JSTOR, have an embargo which prevents you from searching specific years of a publication. 


  • What kinds of sources does the database include?
    The description of the database should also let you know what kinds of materials are included in the database.  For example, you can determine if the database searches just articles, or also other sources such as book chapters or dissertations. Some resources focus on specific types of publications, such as newspapers or theses.


Database Search Techniques

Use advanced search (when available)

The advanced or guided search option will provide you with much more flexibility in designing your search. It allows you to select specific fields to search, such as author or title, and will often provide help constructing your search.

Use Boolean operators

The Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT can help you combine concepts, as well as helping you to expand or narrow your search.

  • AND Narrows Your Search
    Joining search terms with AND looks for results which must include all of your keywords: alcoholism AND schizophrenia

  • OR Broadens Your Search
    Joining search terms with OR broadens your search and can be used with synonyms: Latino OR Hispanic

  • NOT Limits Your Search
    Joining search terms with NOT excludes keywords from your search: pets NOT cats

Use subjects terms or descriptors.

If you find an article on the topic you are interested in, look at the subject terms or descriptors that are listed in the record for the item. These terms are standard within the database, and often can help you locate more articles on that topic.

For example, if you are looking for articles on African Americans in Chicago politics and enter "African Americans" as a search term, you will likely get some results. But looking at the subject terms within some of the records, you may notice that the database uses the descirptor "blacks".  Using that as a subject/descriptor may expand the number of search results.

Some databases, such as PsysINFO or Medline, will have a thesaurus feature built in the database, which will point you to the best subject terms. Take advantage of these features when they are available.

Use limits

Most databases provide an option to limit your search. These limits can include language, source types, publication date, scholary (peer reviewed) journals and full text only. If you find yourself getting too many hits, or would like to eliminate certain types of records, set your limits and try again.

Use truncation and wildcards when applicable.

Most databases provide an option to use wildcards or truncation. This will help you search variations of words that may be important for your search.

  • wom?n finds woman or women
  • philosoph* finds philosopher, philosophers, philosophy...

These symbols can vary from database to database, so check the "Help" or "Search Tips" options in the database you are searching to find the best one for your needs.

Database Helps & Tutorials