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Research Tips: Search

Search Strategy Steps

This guide is an introduction to the successful search techniques you need to find articles in any research database. 

Databases are structured in similar ways and have common features. This means that if you can search one database effectively, then your skills are transferable to other databases.

  • Follow the steps listed on this page to get started
  • Browse the rest of the guide for more database tips and tools


Identify Main Concepts

Break your topic into concepts (subjects). These concepts will form the building blocks of your search strategy.



  • Databases don't like sentences! 
  • Long phrases or sentences will confuse the database and lead to disappointing or NO results. 
  • Pick out the words that indicate the main points of your topic (usually the nouns) 


Example Question:





  • Good research topics usually contain 2-4 concepts. 
  • Topics with one concept will usually retrieve way too many results.
  • Topics with too many concepts may limit your results too much.


Brainstorm for Keywords

The search terms (keywords) you use are extremely important!

  • Keywords are the search terms that you enter into the database to describe each of your concepts.
  • When you search the database, you are usually searching the words in the Title and Abstract, not the full-text article.
  • The Title and Abstract are written by the author of the article. 
  • The database will word-match your keywords against the author's words in the title & abstract and deliver only results that match what you enter.



Databases look for the exact words and phrases you type in, so if the author uses a different word (synonym) to describe a concept, you will not see that article in your results.



For each of your concepts, identify alternative keywords. 

  • Ask yourself, "What other words could the author use to describe this concept?
  • Be careful with phrases. If you search with a phrase, think of alternative ways to describe the phrase and search with that as well. Example: hand washing or handwashing or hand hygeine.
  • Not familiar with a topic? Having trouble thinking of synonyms?  Browse these resources (dictionaries, textbooks, encylopedias) for background information.


Create a master list of alternative words for each of your concepts. 

Use this list as you search the databases.  In addition to synonyms, be creative and think of: 

  • Related Words
  • Spelling Variations (especially American vs British, for example anesthesia or aneasthesia)
  • Acronyms (also spell out the phrase)
  • Brand and generic drug names
  • Plural and Singular variations
  • Narrower Terms
  • Broader Terms



Here is the beginning of a list for our research question--


Does soft drink consumption increase the risk of obesity in children?

Concept 1  Concept 2 Concept 3
Child Soda Obesity
Children Soft Drink Overweight
Adolescent    Pop Body Weight
Juvenile Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Body Mass Index
  Beverages BMI





Choose a Database

Pick databases that matches the subject matter of your chosen topic.

  • Databases can be multidisciplinary or they can specialize in specific subject areas. There are nursing databases, education databases, psychology databases, etc.
  • Search more than one database for a comprehensive search on a topic. Although there may be some overlap, each database contains different journals and provides different results.
  • Check out your program's library guide for a list of relevant databases.


Librarians are also great resources to ask if you are stuck on which database to search for your topic!

Connect your Keywords Together

How you connect your search terms together can change the outcome of your search. 

  • A database needs instructions--tell it what to do! 
  • Databases use the Boolean Operators AND, OR, NOT to combine search terms.
  • Most databases automatically use AND.  This only retrieves articles that contain all of the keywords. 

See the Boolean Operators tab for more information.

Exploratory Searches

Explore the database and see what's there.

Remember, your initial seraches are a guess about how the author has described the topic in the title and abstract. You are trying to match your keywords to their words. 

1. Run some exploratory searches in the database using different keywords from your list.

2. Browse your search results. In most databases, you will need to click on the title to read the abstract.

3. Look for relevant articles.

4. Look for subject headings.  Most databases assign subject headings for each article. These indicate the main topics of the article. If there is an appropriate subject heading for one of your concepts use it to search instead of your keywords! For more information, click on the Subject Searching tab.

5. Revise, Revise, Revise. Initial searches can often be improved. Evaluate your results and then search again using alternative keywords or appropriate subject headings found in your initial results.


Setting Up the Search:

1. As a general rule, start with broad searches. Cast a wide net and explore your results. After you have determined the best keywords/subject headings, start to limit your search.

  • Start with only 2 of your concepts. Prioritize your concepts and begin with the two most important concepts.
  • Don't use any limiters initially (date restrictions, peer-reviewed, etc.) See the Using Limiters tab for more information.

2. Most databases have multiple search boxes near the top of the page.

  • Enter each of your core concepts separately.
  • If you don't see the individual search boxes, click on the Advanced Search option (PubMed).

Here is an example of how to set up a keyword search using the our search example.


 1. Type in your keywords.

  First search box:


  Second search box:

"soft drinks"

     Please note: This term is searched as a phrase with quotes. See the Keyword Tips tab for more information about phrase searching as well as truncation. 


2. Click the Search button.



Refine Searches

Searching is very much a trial and error process.  You will probably revise & refine your searches several times based on each search's results. Use the database's tools for refining your searches.

Browse this guide for more information about these tools and for more search tips.