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INF211/406 Research Skills Guide: Strategic searching

Before you start

Before you start searching in the Library catalogue or journal databases: 

  1. Review the information in the INF111 Research Skills Guide on Topic Analysis, and analyse your question or scenario carefully. 
  2. Do any background research, to make sure you understand all the terminology, concepts, and reference involved in your question.
  3. Prepare a list of keywords to use while searching. Make sure you think about:
    • Synonyms
    • Alternative spellings
    • Related terms.
  4. Think about the types of information sources you can use, e.g. scholarly or popular, and think about what the best source for that information could be, e.g. Google, the Library catalogue, a journal database.

These steps should help you to prepare for effective, efficient searching.  

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. library AND services
Use OR to retrieve results that contain any or all of your search terms. resources OR services
Using NOT to exclude irrelevant results. resources NOT mining
Combine terms with parentheses to create complex searches. (client OR patron) AND archives
Use quotation marks to search for a phrase "reference interview"
Search for terms with different word endings using an asterisk.

librar* = library, libraries, library's, librarian, librarians

archiv* = archive, archives, archival, archivist

A question mark can be used to replace a single letter within a word. analy?e = analyse, analyze

If these tips don't work in the database you are using check their help section for their set of symbols. For Primo search tips and information, see the Primo Search Library Resource Guide

Keeping a record

When searching, make sure you are logged in to your Library account in Primo. You can use it to save searches or items that you need to keep. It will also temporarily record your search history, which you can save if you need to keep a record.

The Library also has a Literature Review Library Resource Guide, which is aimed at PhD-level students but also has some advice and resources on developing search strategies and keeping search records. 

Reflective writing

The Academic Skills team have developed a guide to reflective writing that you could use if you're having trouble getting started. 

There are also many resources on the wider internet, including guides and videos:

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. 

Formulating search strings

These techniques can be combined to create a more sophisticated and controlled search strategy. Combining strategies together is called a search string you can see more examples in the following table.

Search Strategy Operators
coastal AND erosion Boolean
"climate change" AND surface AND corrosion Boolean, phrase
(sea wall OR seawall) AND corrosion Boolean, Grouping
"climate change" AND coast* AND (sea wall OR seawall) Boolean, Grouping, Truncation, phrase

Proximity Searching

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:  

employability N3 higher education  (N=near) This will find results where employability is within 3 words of higher education in any order

employability W3 higher education (W=within) This will find results where employability is within 3 words of higher education  in the order in which you entered the search terms

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