Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

HLT330 Research Skills Guide: General Search Techniques


Before you start searching online resources, it's good to have a grasp of some of the general techniques of online searching.

Note: Databases and other online resources are similar in what they offer and what they do, but are different in their specific appearance and functionality. It's a good idea to check a database's Help section to check and confirm how to search in that particular database.

Boolean 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

Keyword and Phrase Searches

What's the difference?

  • A keyword search is 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.
  • A phrase search is 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.

It is useful to know whether the database you are searching defaults to a keyword search or a phrase search.

Keyword Search. Primo Search and most databases (eg EBSCOhost and ProQuest databases) default to a keyword search:

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

Phrase Search. Some databases (eg Ovid databases) default to a phrase search:

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

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

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 examples below are from EBSCOhost but the databases vary. If you want to use proximity searching you should check the database's Help section.

In any EBSCOhost database:

If you enter, in the search box: You will get:
patient N4 assessment Results where the word patient occurs within 4 words of the word assessment (in any order)
disaster planning N3 paramedic* Results where the phrase "disaster planning" occurs within 3 words of paramedic, paramedical, paramedicine etc

Get better search results


If you wish to use different combining operators in the same search, there are two ways that you can do this:

  1. Use an Advanced Search screen with multiple boxes and use a different box for each part of the search:
  2. 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.


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 (*).


If you search for: You will get:
paramedic* paramedic, paramedicine, paramedical
radiolog* radiology, radiologist, radiological
imag* image, images, imaging etc [but, beware, also imagine, imagining etc]

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.