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Literature Review & Research Skills Guide: Developing a Search Strategy

Developing a Search Strategy

A search strategy is a well thought out plan about how to search for relevant information. Using information sources in a consistent, structured manner will save you time. As your searching progresses and your searches are refined, your search history can be extremely useful.  It can also improve the relevancy of results obtained, as you reflect on your keywords and synonyms and how these relate to each other.

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. child AND education
Use OR to retrieve results that contain any or all of your search terms. elementary OR primary
Using NOT to exclude irrelevant results. education NOT health
Group terms or equivalent keywords with parentheses to create complex searches. (elementary OR primary) AND education
Use quotation marks to search for a phrase "early childhood education"
Search for terms with different word endings using an asterisk. math* = math, maths, mathematics, mathematical
A question mark can be used to replace a single letter within a word. analy?e = analyse, analyze

For an explanation of the operators please see the Getting Better Search Results video at the top of this page. Pay particular attention to the NOT operator as this can be useful for removing results on topics that may not be relevant to you, such as health and psychology.

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. 

Proximity Searching

In Search Techniques, we looked at using search operators to combine search terms. AND is the operator that ensures search results contain both or all terms.

In some databases, you can use a proximity operator to specify that your search terms must be close to – that is, within a certain number of words of – each other. This is narrower than a phrase-search, and broader than a keyword search.

The proximity operator is usually a letter or word, followed by a number. You can specify the number, and it will determine the number of words between your two search terms. The higher the number, the more results you will get, and the less relevant they might be.

In the EBSCOhost example below, the database will search for politic* within 4 words of australia*:

This search uses politic* N4 australia*

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.

Watch this demonstration for further explanation.


Try combining some of your keywords using some common search tips.

  • Do you have similar terms to link with OR?
  • Do you have any phrases?
  • Can you combine two different terms with an AND?

Get better search results

Thesaurus/Subject Headings

Journal databases use a controlled vocabulary when indexing article records to enable information to be grouped by topic.

By controlling the vocabulary, the database ensures that synonyms and similar phrases are collected under one accepted term.

You can search using a database's vocabulary. When you are in a database there will usually be a hyperlink near the search boxes called thesaurus, subjects, or subject headings

Thesaurus searching in EBSCOhost

Limiting your search results

Records in library databases are comprised of fields containing specific pieces of bibliographic information. Common fields include:

  • author
  • title
  • journal title
  • abstract
  • publisher
  • date/year of publication
  • subject/descriptor

Limiting your search to specific fields can yield more precise results. 

Searching within the abstract fields can be particularly helpful. This is because abstracts, as summaries of articles, are very keyword-rich: If you get a 'hit' on a keyword in an abstract you will usually find the article is relevant. The abstract is also a good source to find additional keywords you can use in your search strategies.

Most databases will also allow you to narrow your search further by using a choice of limiters, usually appear to the left of your search results. Common limiters include:

  • date range
  • language
  • subject area
  • geographical area
  • peer reviewed articles

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