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CHM321 Research Skills Guide: Search techniques

Common Search Tips

These search tips can help you to find more relevant results in Primo Search and many other library databases. You can also have a look at the Database Help and the Primo Search Help guides.

Search Operator Example
Use AND to retrieve results that contain both of your search terms. laboratory AND accident
Use OR to retrieve results that contain any or all of your search terms. laboratory OR lab
Using NOT to exclude irrelevant results. lab NOT retriever
Combine terms with parentheses to create complex searches. (laboratory OR lab) AND accident
Use quotation marks to search for a phrase "chemical hazard"
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

Some databases use different symbols, so if these tips don't work in the database you are using check their help section.

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

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