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NRS328 Research Skills Guide: A Refresher on Search Techniques

Search Operators

Search Operators (called Boolean Operators) allow you to fine-tune your search by using the operators AND, OR, and NOT to combine search terms to broaden or narrow your search. You should always type these operators in capital letters.

  • AND will combine the terms so that both or all terms must be in the results. This is a narrowing technique which makes your search more specific.
  • OR will combine the terms to that one or other (or both or all) of the terms will be in the results. This is a broadening technique which gets more results.
  • NOT will exclude results that contain a particular term. This is a narrowing technique. It's not used very often because it's probably better to search for what you do want rather than for what you don't want.

Venn Diagrams showing the 3 types of search operators - AND, OR, and NOT

Using Different Search Operators in the Same Search

If you wish to use different combining operators in the same search - that is, AND and OR together - there are two ways that you can do this:

  • Use an Advanced Search screen with multiple lines of search and use a different line for each part of the search.

Example: [Search line 1]: patient* OR resident*
       AND [Search line 2]: "nursing home" OR "aged care home"

  • Use round brackets to enclose the different parts of the search. You must do this if you are using a single search box. The brackets ensure that the search tool interprets and executes the search exactly as you require.

Example:   (patient* OR resident*) AND ("nursing home" OR "aged care home")        

Finding Different Word Endings

Truncation is used to search for the same term with different word-endings. This is another way of making your search broader, with more results. The truncation symbol is usually the asterisk (*). You need to put the asterisk where the spelling changes.


If you search for: You will get:
nurs* nurse, nurses, nursing etc
team* team, teams, teamwork etc

Keyword VS Phrase Searches

Keyword Search [most common]

Primo Search and most databases (eg EBSCOhost and ProQuest databases) default to a keyword search, where multiple words entered together in the search box are searched for separately as keywords. The search tool puts the AND operator between the terms. In this case, if you want to search for the words as a phrase, you must enclose the words in double quotation marks.

If you enter, in the search box: brain injury You will get results that have brain AND injury [not necessarily occurring together]
If you want to get results for brain injury as a phrase You will need to  enter, in the search box:  "brain injury"

Phrase Search [less common]

Some databases (eg Ovid databases) default to a phrase search, where multiple words entered together in the search box are searched for as a phrase. In this case, if you want to search for the words separately, you must insert the AND operator between them.

If you enter, in the search box: brain injury You will get results that have brain injury as a phrase
If you want to get results that have both the words brain AND injury, but not necessarily together You will need to enter, in the search boxbrain AND injury

If in doubt, enclose a phrase in double quotation marks.

Field Searching

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, 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 beside the search box(es).

For more on subject searching, see the guide in this page on Using CINAHL Headings and MeSH.

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. It is placed between the keywords/phrases in the same way as other combining operators. You can usually specify the number of words between the two terms. 

The actual proximity operators vary according to the database. The examples below are from EBSCOhost . If you want to use proximity searching you should check the database's Help section.

In any EBSCOhost database:

If you search for: You will get:
dementia N4 communication Results where the word dementia occurs within 4 words of the word communication
patient* N3 assess* Results where patient OR patients occurs within 3 words of assess, assesses, assessing, assessment etc

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