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GEO204 Research Skills Guide: Search techniques

Search Techniques

It's worth spending time learning how to search effectively, so that you can be confident you are retrieving the most relevant articles for your assignment. Below we discuss some search strategies that will help you conduct better searches:

Search techniques

Boolean operators allow you to fine tune your search by using the operators "AND", "OR" and "NOT" to combine keywords and expand or narrow your search. The diagram below shows you how Boolean operators refine a search. 


Wildcard symbols enable you to substitute a symbol for one letter of a word. They are particularly useful for words with multiple spellings. 

The wildcard symbol is typically a question mark (?), inserted in place of the variable letter.

Wildcard word:       What the database will search for:      
Organi?ation Organisation, Organization
Wom?n Woman, Women
Colo?r Color, Colour


Phrase Searching

Phrase searching involves placing double quotation marks "_  _" around two or more words to create a search term. This technique narrows the search to retrieve only those results in which the exact phrase appears. For example, "soil formation" will search for results in which the words soil and formation appear next to each other.

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:  

soil N3 carbon (N=near) This will find results where soil is near 3 words of carbon in any order

soil W3 carbon (W=within) This will find results where soil is within 3 words of carbon in this order in which you enter your search terms.


Proximity operators in the major database platforms:

  • EBSCOhost         Nn
  • ProQuest             NEAR/n
  • Informit                %         [and you must have All terms selected]
  • Ovid                     ADJn

where n is the number you nominate.

Get better search results


Truncation allows you to search for all variants of a word. The truncation symbol is usually an asterisk (*), inserted after the last letter in the stem word.

The table below shows you how to use a truncation symbol and how it affects what a database searches:

Truncated word:      What the database will search for:     
mammal* mammal, mammals, mammalian
ecolog* ecology, ecological
caus* cause, causes, causing
river* river, rivers, riverine

Subject headings and author keywords

Most articles include a list of subject headings or author keywords that convey the overarching themes covered in the article. You can use the subject headings or author keywords from a relevant article to identify additional keywords and common terms.

Below is an example of a database records from Academic Search Complete (EBSCOhost).

In many databases these are also links that you can click and follow.


Apply limiters

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, because they refine your results.

Common limiters include:

  • Full text
  • Date
  • Peer-Reviewed
  • Language

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