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Charles Sturt University Study Centre Libraries: Search Tips and Techniques

Search Tips and Techniques

Click on the Tips or Techniques below to find out how to use them.

tips and techniques


Stop words

Stop words are extremely common words such as articles, pronouns and prepositions with no significance in searching. 

Stop words can vary depending on the database.

Some of these stop words include:

a, also, an, and, are, as, at, be, because, been, but, by, for, from, has, have, he, if, in, is, it, not, of, on, or, so, than, that, the, their, there, these, to, was, were, whatever, whether, which, will, with, would.

There is no need to type them in your search. Usually these words are filtered out because they return a vast amount of unnecessary results. 

However, include the stop words if is part of a “phrase” as you would receive different results if they are excluded, for example raven and “the raven”.


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Start Big

When beginning a search, start big. As you progress, add additional terms and/or filter down.

It makes researching easy as it is easier to filter down than trying to start small and expand the search results.

This will also stop you from missing out articles and other information that can potentially be essential to your assignments.


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Spelling Matters

Spelling matters, especially when searching in the Library Catalogue and databases. It becomes incredibly important when searching for an author. This is because incorrect spelling can bring up irrelevant results.

Capitulation of words, on the other hand, doesn’t matter. Library Catalogues, databases and most search engines does not recognise them, even within quotation marks.


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Wikipedia Woes

Each university has its own rules in regards of using Wikipedia for your assignments.

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. Information on the site may not be scholarly, biased or incorrect.

Charles Sturt University forbids students from using and referencing information provided by Wikipedia.

However, Charles Sturt University does allow students are to use Wikipedia for general background information, gathering alternate keywords/ synonyms and images.

Excellent alternatives to Wikipedia includes Encyclopedia Britannica, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford English Dictionary and Oxford Art Online, as well as may other databases which all can be accessed from Charles Sturt University Library A-Z databases.


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Boolean Operators: AND OR NOT?

Boolean operators are words that are used to connect keywords together to focus a search and help you find the most relevant results – AND, OR, NOT. They should always be typed in capital letters.


AND - retrieves results that contain both search terms, narrowing the search

adolescent AND computer


OR - retrieved results that contain any or all of the search terms, broadening the search. 

teen OR adolescent

This operator is mostly used to connect two or more keywords that have similar meanings or used interchangeably.


NOT - excludes words in a search.

computer NOT laptop

In some systems, a dash (-) followed by the word with no space is used instead of NOT.



You can combine all of these operators in one search statement using brackets. This is called nesting. For example:

(teen OR adolescent) AND (computer NOT laptop)


When a search statement such as the example above is applied, influencing, the results would be different depending on the order of the boolean operators. This is why we use brackets to ensure the correct combination. 


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Nesting: (Search in that order please!)

Nesting helps in combining searches and controlling keywords and operators.


Brackets () mostly used to keep similar words together.  For example, an OR statement.


Brackets also give the database or search engine, a function order. Like a mathematics equation, anything inside the brackets is searched first.

(teen OR adolescent) AND computer


Not using brackets, in this example, can bring vastly different results in comparison.


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Subject Headings: In other words TOPICS

Library catalogues and databases use controlled vocabulary to describe and categorise their collections. These are standardised list of words or phrases to express a specific concept. Controlled vocabulary will narrow your search providing fewer results, usually relevant to your topic. It will also save some time having to come up with and search for every possible synonym and spelling.


In libraries, these are called as Subject Headings. In databases, these have many names such as thesaurus, subject terms, subject headings or descriptors.


Subject headings are applied to every item within the Library collection.You may have already seen and used these headings. When filtering your search with topics, you are actually filtering using the subject headings.

The headings are listed in the Subject field in a record.


To use these headings, you can either:

- Filter by Topics
- Include them in your search in  ADVANCED SEARCH  and change Any Field to Subject then enter the term.
- Click on the Subject heading from the record itself. However by doing so you would be starting a new search. These are usually listed after the citation. 


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Phrases: "Search exactly what is written"

Phrase searching allows you to find results, with the keywords appearing in that order. It is especially useful when you are searching for multi-word concepts that are made up of commonly used words. This will narrow the search and filter out irrelevant results.


This is indicated by using quotation marks “ ”.

"information security"
"state power"
"social media"


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Truncation: is that a start?*

Truncation allows you to search for words that have multiple endings but cover the same idea. This prevents you to make long "OR" statements saving you time and frustration.


In most databases, this is indicted by using an asterisk (*). 

Keyword – Human*
Searched words – humankind, humanise, humanist, humane


However, be careful. Putting the truncation too early can find irrelevant words. 

Keyword – Hum*
Related words – humbug, humid, humor, humour, hummingbird


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Wildcard: What's the question mark for?

Wildcards are used to replace any single character in a word regardless of its position. This is useful when there are variations in the spelling of the word.


This is indicated commonly as a question mark (?). In some databases, it is a hashtag (#) is used. Try either.

Keyword - Wom?n
Related words – woman, women, womyn

Keyword – Col#r
Related words – color, colour


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Proximity: How close are the keywords?

Proximity operators allows you to search for words based on how close they appear to each other. This is useful when you are searching for concepts that are expressed by multiple phrases. For example, a phrase search for “Management theories” will not retrieve results that mention "theories of management", "theories about management", "theories in management" and other similar phrases. Proximity searching would retrieve those.


Typically, the proximity operators consist of a letter (N or W) or a word (SAME or NEAR) and a number. 

information NEAR/7 security | information N7 security

This will get results that have information and security separated by up to 7 words


Different databases use different proximity operators. The common operators seem to be NEAR (N) and WITHIN (W) or PRE (P).

- NEAR (N) – search for words within a certain number of words to each other
- WITHIN (W) or PRE (P) – depending on the database used, the operator will search for words within a certain number of words to each other in the specified order.


Check the help menu of the database you are using to find out what the operators and symbols it uses for proximity searching.


It should be noted, proximity searching is not always needed. Boolean operators and field search are more than enough to find what you need (especially as some databases are not very big). However, as databases provide more searchable full text, proximity searching has become increasingly important.


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Field Search: Search in the Title or the Description? 

Field searching allows you to specify exactly where the keyword is to be found.

The default setting for keyword searches is in all fields (author, title, subject, etc.) 

Field searching is useful in focusing your search especially when you are looking for a particular author, article, journal, or book. When you combine field searches with controlled vocabulary, your search becomes even more effective. 


The field options are usually located at the drop-down menu next to the search box.


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Citation Mining

Citation mining or searching, means that when you are using the references in an article to collect more relevant resources and save time. However, there are limitations when using citations because this may narrow the results and not capture the full range of resources.


There are two method for searching citations:

- Citation chasing

Also known as footnote chasing and backward searching, this technique will search for articles cited/ used by a particular article.

By using the reference list, the technique will lead to older information, highlighting the development and origins of the topic.

- Citation searching

Also known as forward searching, this technique searches for articles that have cited a particular article.

This search leads to newer information on the topic, helping in identifying new findings and developments.

The number of times the article has been cited can indicate its influence or significance. However, the number can be misleading, so always evaluate the article.

Google Scholar and some databases has enabled this feature.