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HIP202 Research Skills Guide: Search Techniques


In HIP202, you are learning about finding and evaluating articles and studies from the health literature. Let's start with some general principles on online searching.

Note: Databases 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 find out how to search in that particular database.

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 so 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, there are two ways that this is possible:

In Primo Search, if you want to search for either patient or resident, as well as either nursing home or aged care home, then you can use Advanced Search and have patient or resident in the first line of search, and nursing home or aged care home in the second line of search1. Use an Advanced Search screen with multiple boxes and use a different box for each part of the search:

This is the safer and preferred way.






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. (In the search at right, the AND operator is not required because Primo Search inserts this for us.)



Both the searches above will look for:

patient AND nursing home   OR   resident AND nursing home   OR   patient AND aged care home   OR   resident AND aged care home.

Searching for Words with Different 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 (*).


If you search for: You will get:
therap* therapy, therapies, therapist, therapeutic etc
team* team, teams, teamworks etc
aphas* aphasia, aphasic

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.

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; other databases vary. If you want to use proximity searching you should check the database's Help section.

In CINAHL Plus with Full Text:

If you enter, in the search box: You will get:
dementia N4 communication Results where the word dementia occurs within 4 words of the word communication
discharge planning N3 attitud* Results where the phrase "discharge planning" occurs within 3 words of attitude, attitudes, attitudinal 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.