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CUS401 Research Skills Guide: Advanced database searching

Advanced Search Techniques

  • Operators are special words that determine how your search terms are combined in the search.
  • They are sometimes called BOOLEAN operators.
  • You should always type in your search operators in capital letters.
  • The 2 main search operators are AND and OR.
Using the AND operator 
  • If you add extra search terms, and combine them with AND, you will get only results that contain both or all of the terms.
  • This is a way of making your search more specific (narrower), and getting fewer results


border security AND customs

Using the OR operator
  • If you add extra search terms, and combine them with OR, you will get results that contain one or other (or both) of your search terms.
  • This is a way of making your search less specific (broader), and getting more results.


border protection OR border security

Truncation is used to search for terms with different word-endings.

This is another way of making your search broader, and getting more results.

In Primo Search, and in most databases, the truncation symbol is the asterisk ( * ).

manag* will search for the words manage, manager, managing, management, etc.
strateg* will search for the words strategy, strategic, strategies, etc.


It's helpful to know if the online resource you are searching defaults to keyword-searching or phrase-searching.

Phrase-searching is more specific, and gets fewer results; keyword-searching is broader, and get more results.

Primo Search (like Google) defaults to keyword-searching.

Example: If you type in risk management you will get results for risk AND management. If you wish to search for the phrase <risk management>, you need to type in "risk management".

  • Some databases, eg EBSCOhost databases, default to phrase-searching.

Example: If you type in risk management , you will get the phrase <risk management>. If you wish to search for the keywords risk and management, you need to type in risk AND management.

Database records consist of fields that contain specific pieces of bibliographic information.

Common fields include:

  • Author(s)
  • Article title
  • Journal title
  • Date/year of publication
  • Subject headings
  • Abstract (summary).

To find the various fields in which you can search, look for drop-down boxes or menus. Here's the EBSCOhost Advanced Search screen.

You can combine search terms, search operators, and field searching to build quite complex searches, and get precise results:

Search limiters are another important way to narrow a search, and most databases offer a range of limiters that you can use as part of your search, or that you can apply after you have your results. In the latter case, they are usually called refiners, because they refine your results.

To find limiters to add to your search, look for tick-boxes and drop-down menus on the main search page. To find refiners to refine your results, look for lists to the left or right of your results list:

A proximity search forces a database to find results where one search term appears within a certain number of words of another search term. The proximity operator varies according to the database.

Examples from an EBSCOhost database:  

risk management  N3 border protection (N=near)This will find results where 'risk management' is within 3 words of 'border protection' in any order

risk management W3 border protection (W=within) This will find results where 'risk management' is within 3 words of 'border protection' in the order in which you entered the search terms

Using Facets

Most databases also allow you to limit your search or refine your results set by facets. Common facets include:

  • date
  • language
  • subject area
  • geographical area
  • material type (eg. Review articles, which will provide an overview of research on a particular topic)
  • journal title

In many cases, you can also limit a search to scholarly or peer reviewed articles. The options will depend on the database you are searching.

Thesaurus/Subject Headings

Journal databases use a controlled vocabulary when indexing article records to enable information to be grouped by topic.

By controlling the vocabulary, the database ensures that synonyms and similar phrases are collected under one accepted term.

You can search using a database's vocabulary. When you are in a database there will usually be a hyperlink near the search boxes called thesaurus, subjects, or subject headings

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