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Higher Degree Research (Faculty of Business, Justice, Behavioural Sciences)

A guide to support Higher Degree Research candidates with preparation of Research Proposal and Draft Literature Review for RES703

From research question to search strategy

Common Search Tips

There are a number of techniques you can use while searching to get better and more relevant results.

Basic and advanced search

Basic search usually involves one search box, with a few options about searching a specific collection or field. This is great for general searching. When you have multiple keywords or complex search queries, using Advanced search can be helpful. This usually involves several different boxes for your different keywords, built-in search operators, and more options for field searching and limiters.

Most databases will have a link to Advanced Search next to their Basic search option. Advanced Search in Google Scholar is accessible from the menu.

Search operators

Use these with your keywords to refine your searches and specify exactly what you want to find. These are most useful in journal databases and Primo Search. (Some of them won't work as well in Google Scholar.)

Search Operator Example
Use AND to retrieve results that contain both of your search terms. police AND federal
Use OR to retrieve results that contain any or all of your search terms. politics OR government
Using NOT to exclude irrelevant results. canine NOT dental
Group terms or equivalent keywords with parentheses to create complex searches. (tertiary OR university) AND education
Use quotation marks to search for a phrase "lung cancer"
Search for terms with different word endings using an asterisk. manag* = manage, managed, managing, management
A question mark can be used to replace a single letter within a word. analy?e = analyse, analyze

Field searching and limiters

Most databases will allow you to specify which field you want to search. Common fields include author, title, dates, and subject headings/topic, and these are usually available in both basic and advanced search. 

Once you've searched, you can also limit your results by some of these fields. This is extremely useful if you want all of your articles to have been published within a certain date range, or for them all to be peer-reviewed. Look for these in the menus beside your search results. 

Search Techniques - Choose from the links below

  • Operators are special words that determine how your search terms are combined in the search.
  • They are sometimes called BOOLEAN operators (named after George Boole, a mathematician).
  • You should always type in your search operators in capital letters.
  • The 2 main search operators are AND and OR.


Using the AND operator 
  • Retrieving too many results can be a problem when searching databases.
  • 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.


Boolean AND searching gets results where all search terms are included

Using the OR operator 
  • Sometimes you might not get enough results.
  • 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.


Boolean OR searching gets results with at least one of your search terms

Using the NOT operator 
  • Sometimes you might wish to get results that do NOT contain a certain term.
  • If you combine precede a term with NOT, you will get results that do not contain that term.
  • This is a way of making your search more specific (narrower), and getting fewer results.
  • NOTE: consider that it might be better to search for what you do want, rather than what you do not want.

government NOT state

  • You can use different operators in the same search. If you do, you must use EITHER different search lines, OR round brackets. This is important to ensure that the correct operators work on the correct terms.
  • This enables you to construct complex searches.


(politics OR government) AND (history OR past) AND australia

politics OR government
[AND] history
[AND] australia

  • 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 ( * ).

politic* will search for the words politic, politics, political, politician, politicians etc.
histor* will search for the words history, historical, historian, historians etc.

  • What's the difference between keyword-searching and phrase-searching?
    • Keyword-searching = when you enter multiple words, your results will contain both or all words, but not necessarily together as a phrase.
    • Phrase-searching  = when you enter multiple words, your results will contain only that phrase.
  • Most search tools default to keyword-searching. This includes Primo Search, EBSCOhost databases, and ProQuest databases (also Google and Google Scholar).

Example: If you type in lung cancer, you will get results equivalent to searching lung AND cancer. If you wish to search for the phrase <lung cancer>, you need to type in "lung cancer".

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

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

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).

Most databases will default to searching in all the main fields (see Database Platforms below), but changing this to search only in a specific field, or fields, can give you more precise results.

For topic searching, it's a good idea to search in the Subject field, but searching in the Title field can work quite well too. If you are searching for an author, you can search only in the Author field; if you are searching for a publication, you can search only in the Publication (also known as the Source) field.

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

The EBSCOHost advanced search screen allows you to select which field to search and which Boolean operators you'd like to use

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

The EBSCOHost advanced search screen also allows you to change the scope of your search easily

For information on searching using a thesaurus, see Using a thesaurus.

So far, we have looked at how search operators, truncation, keyword- and phrase-searching, and field searching can narrow or broaden your search.

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 or filters, because they refine/filter your results.

Common limiters include:

  • Full text
  • Date
  • Peer-Reviewed
  • Language.

Other limiters will be available according to the subject content of the database, but might include:

  • Publication type
  • Document type
  • Humans
  • Evidence-based practice.

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:

Limiters are available in most database searches as dropdown menus or check boxes

Keeping a record of your search activity

Good search practice could involve keeping a search diary or document detailing your search activities (Phelps et. al. 2007, pp. 128-149), so that you can keep track of effective search terms, or to help others to reproduce your steps and get the same results. 

This record could be a document, table or spreadsheet with:

  • The names of the sources you search and which provider you accessed them through - eg Medline (Ovid), Web of Science (Thomson Reuters). You should also include any other literature sources you used.
  • The search strategies that you applied when searching different sources (eg Medline, Web of Science) can be added as an appendix to your document. This provides additional detail on:
    • how you searched (keyword and/or subject headings)
    • which search terms you used (which words and phrases)
    • any search techniques you employed (truncation, adjacency, etc)
    • how you combined your search terms (AND/OR). Check out the Refine your search results video for more tips on Boolean Searching.
  • The number of search results from each source and each strategy used.  This can be the evidence you need to prove a gap in the literature, and confirms the importance of your research question.

A search planner may help you to organise you thoughts prior to conducting your search. If you have any problems with organising your thoughts prior, during and after searching please contact your Library Faculty Team  for individual help.

Organising your literature


EndNote is software that can be of great help with any type of review. See our EndNote Library Resource Guide for detailed instructions on how to download this tool and use it to organise your literature, store your PDF files and generate lists of references.

EndNote is particularly useful for systematic reviews as (among other things) it enables you to:

You may also consider inserting the inclusion and exclusion criteria checklist into a notes field in each EndNote record.

For help with EndNote,contact one of the Library Faculty Teams or attend one of our online workshops.


NVivo can be used with EndNote to can help you identify articles, key findings and influential authors when conducting a literature review. NVivo can import PDF files and bibliographic information from EndNote. You can organise, code or tag literature, to help you keep track of themes, critical quotes and ideas.

See our EndNote and NVivo for Literature Review Library Resource Guide for detailed information about using NVivo with EndNote. We also run online workshops on this from time to time, so check our calendar for upcoming sessions.