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NRS538 Research Skills Guide: Search Techniques and Strategies


There are various techniques of online searching that will help you get more relevant results.

Most search tools and databases are similar in what they allow you to do, but they might look different or use different terms or symbols. If in doubt, check a search tool or database's Help section to find out which search strategies are allowed and whether they are the same as shown here.


Search Operators (called Boolean Operators) - AND, OR, and NOT - allow you 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 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.
  • 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.


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 results for:
manag* manage, manager, managers, managing, etc
audit* audit, auditor, auditors, audited, auditing,
bull* bully, bullied, bullying [but, beware, also bull and bulls!!]


Note that the truncation symbol is placed where the spelling changes.


What's the difference?

  • A keyword search is where multiple words entered together in the search box are searched for separately as keywords. The search tool puts in the AND operator for you. In this case, if you want to search for the words as a phrase, you must enclose the words in double quotation marks.
  • A phrase search is 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.

It is useful to know whether the database you are searching defaults to a keyword search or a phrase search.

Primo Search and most databases (eg EBSCOhost and ProQuest databases) default to a keyword search. In a keyword search:

If you search for: You will get results for:
refugee health refugee AND health
"refugee health" refugee health as a phrase

Some databases (eg Ovid databases) default to a phrase search. In a phrase search:

If you search for: You will get results for:
refugee health refugee health as a phrase
refugee AND health refugee AND health


If in doubt, enclose a phrase in double quotation marks.


A proximity search forces a database to find results where one search term appears within a certain number of words of another search term. It can strike a useful balance between a keyword search (too many results) and a phrase search (too few results).

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 as in EBSCOhost but other platforms and databases are different: if you want to use proximity searching you should check the database's Help section.

In EBSCOhost databases:

If you search for: You will get results for:
effective N4 manag* Any record where the word effective appears within 4 words of a word associated with management
accreditation N3 standards Any record where the word accreditation appears within 3 words of the word standards


When searching in databases you can specify the field(s) that you wish to search in. This is a way of making a search more specific, and getting better results. For example, if you are searching for works BY a particular author, it makes sense to enter the author's name, and search only in the Author field.

Most databases default to searching in all the fields, or at least the main fields, of a record. For example, EBSCOhost databases default to searching in the main fields of a record, while Scopus default to searching in Title, Abstract, and Keywords.


Most databases default to searching in all fields or the main fields of a record. You can specify the field to be searched by using the drop-down menu that usually appears beside the search box.

At right is an example of the CINAHL search screen showing the Select a Field drop-down:




Searching in the Subject field is probably the best way to get the most relevant results. In fact, some medical databases, including CINAHL and MEDLINE, have very sophisticated systems of subject headings, which you can search and browse in various ways. If you are interested in learning about CINAHL headings, or MeSH terms, please contact the Library.


Wildcard symbols enable you to substitute a symbol for one letter of a word. They are particularly useful for words with multiple spellings, such as British versus American spellings.

There can be two uses for wildcards:

  • to take the place of a letter that might be different in different spellings;
  • to take the place of a letter that might be an extra letter in different spellings.

The examples below are from CINAHL - an EBSCOhost database - but databases vary: if you are unsure you should check the database's help section.


If you search for: You will get results for:
organi?ation organisation, organization
wom?n woman, women


If you search for: You will get results for:
  color, colour
p#ediatric pediatric, paediatric


If you wish to use different combining operators in the same search, there are two ways that this is possible:

1. Use an Advanced Search screen with multiple boxes and use a different box for each part of the search:

Using more than one operator using Advanced Search in Primo Search

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 below, the AND operator is not required between the two sets of brackets because Primo Search inserts this for us.)

Both the searches above will look for:

leader AND "health care"       OR
leader AND nursing                 OR
manager AND "health care"    OR
manager AND nursing.

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