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MID441 Research Skills Guide: Search Techniques


Before you start searching for evidence to support your response to an assessment item, it's good to have a grasp of some of the general principles 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. It's used to combine terms from different concepts.
  • 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 and is usually used to make large sets of words and phrases that are similar or can be interchangeable.
  • NOT will exclude results that contain a particular term. This is a narrowing technique and is probably best to avoid most of the time. It's  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


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:
midwi* midwife, midwives, midwifery etc
team* team, teams, teamwork etc
diet* diet, diets, dieting, dietician, dieticians etc

Phrase Searches

A phrase search is where multiple words entered together in the search box are searched for as a phrase, rather than as individual words. Most databases (including EBSCOhost, ProQuest and also Primo Search) require you to search for a phrase by enclosing it in double quotation marks 

Ovid databases default to a phrase search, so don't require quotation marks. But if in doubt, enclose a phrase in double quotation marks.

Examples include "normal birth" or "team midwifery".

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:
pregnancy N4 diet Results where the word pregnancy occurs within 4 words of the word diet
"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.

Get better search results

Further help with searching

For more help with searching, see:

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