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Research Help

How to Search

To get relevant results when searching, it's important to first plan what's called a search strategy. This involves:

  • choosing a well-defined topic to research
  • identifying the keywords to use in your search

The section below will help you develop basic skills in identifying keywords and in using specific search strategies. To develop a deeper understanding of these and to learn other research skills (e.g. choosing a well-defined topic, evaluating information, understanding research articles), complete the tutorials on our Tutorials page.

Using Keywords

Keywords, also referred to as search terms, are words that represent the main ideas of your topic. These words are considered the most important, (or the key), ideas, concepts, or subjects about which you’re looking for information. Keywords are what you want to use when searching databases and other sources for information. Using key terms in search engines like Google, instead of natural language (e.g. typing in an entire question), will often eliminate many of the undesirable websites that would otherwise appear in the search results.

Generally, it’s recommended to use 3 to 5 keywords. The more keywords you use, the more specific your search and the narrower your results will be.

Let’s use the following research question to practice identifying keywords.

How does prejudice impact Indigenous peoples in Canada’s health care system?

The main ideas, or keywords, are:

  • Indigenous
  • prejudice
  • Canada
  • health care

By searching these words together, results related to them will be returned.

When determining the keywords of your assignment topic, it can help to write the topic out in a sentence, then circle the most important words or ideas. The words you circle can then be used to search for information.

Using Boolean Operators

Three simple words can have a big impact on your research. 

Boolean is a set of commands recognized by nearly every search engine, database, or library catalogue that:

  • help focus your search
  • connect various pieces of information

The three basic Boolean operators are:

  • AND
  • OR
  • NOT

Be sure to always capitalize Boolean commands. Some databases only recognize the operators when they're capitalized.

 

Using AND

Use AND in a search to:

  • narrow your results
  • tell the database that ALL search terms must be present in the resulting records

 

Example: dementia AND Alzheimer's

The area of the smaller "dementia AND Alzheimer's" overlapped section of the circles in the middle of the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search. The number of results in that section are smaller (or narrower) than they would be if searching each term on its own.

Venn diagram of Boolean search using dementia AND Alzheimer's. Overlapping area of circles illustrates search results.

To see an example of the AND operator in action, let's look at the list of results when we search for "dementia AND alzheimer's" in some of the Library's EBSCOhost databases.

When viewing the linked search results below, you may be asked to login with your college username and password.

In this example, about 33,000 results were returned. If the words are searched individually, dementia returns nearly 72,000 results and Alzheimer's returns about 70,000 results - much more than when the two terms are searched together with AND.

 

Using OR

Use OR in a search to:

  • connect two or more similar concepts (synonyms)
  • broaden your results, telling the database that ANY of your search terms can be present in the resulting records

 

Example: dementia OR Alzheimer's

The entire area of the "dementia" and "Alzheimer's" circles, including the overlapped section, in the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search. The number of results is larger (or broader) than it would be if searching each term on its own.

Venn diagram of Boolean search using dementia OR Alzheimer's. The entire area of both circles and the overlapped section include results for this search.

To see an example of the OR operator in action, let's look at the list of results when we search for "dementia OR alzheimer's" in some of the Library's EBSCOhost databases.

In this example, nearly 109,000 results were returned! This is more than when the two terms are searched separately (around 70,000 results for each term, individually) and much more than when the two terms are search together with AND (about 33,000).

 

Using NOT

Use NOT in a search to:

  • exclude words from your search
  • narrow your search, telling the database to ignore concepts that may be implied by your search terms

 

Example: dementia NOT Alzheimer's

The large circle with the cut-out in the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search. The number of results is smaller (or narrower) than it would be if searching the term on its own.

Venn diagram of Boolean search using Alzheimer's NOT dementia. Large circle labelled Alzheimer's with circle cut-out labelled NOT dementia illustrates search results.

To see an example of the NOT operator in action, let's look at the list of results when we search for "dementia NOT alzheimer's" in some of the Library's EBSCOhost databases.

In this example, nearly 39,000 results were returned. This is less than when the two terms are searched separately (around 70,000 results for each term, individually) and slightly more than when the two terms are search together with AND (about 33,000).

 

Search Order

Databases follow commands you enter and return results based on those commands. Be aware of the logical order in which words are connected when using Boolean operators: 

  • Databases usually recognize AND as the primary operator, and will connect concepts with AND together first.
  • If you use a combination of AND and OR operators in a search, enclose the words you want to separate with OR in parentheses.

Examples:

  • elderly AND (dementia OR Alzheimer's)
  • (elderly OR aged) AND (dementia OR Alzheimer's)

Adapted and used with permission from Southern Methodist University Library.

Techniques for Finding Good Results

Wildcard ?:

Find different spellings for search terms. Colo?r will give you results with color and colour.

Truncation *:

Find words with varied endings. Educat* will give you results with educate, educated, educator, education, educational, educates, etc.

Phrase Search " ":

Find the exact phrase, with your words in the exact same order as you entered them in the search. "Medication errors" will give you results with both of those words in direct order, instead of results with the words found separately.

Lemmatization { }:

Find compound words written in varied ways. Words like "health care" are written in a variety of ways: health care, health-care, healthcare. Using {healthcare} in your search will give you results with all versions of the word. This saves you from searching each variation separately or from using the Boolean operator OR to get the same results. Other examples are {daycare}, {wastewater}, and {pipefitting}.

 

Where do I find curly brackets { } on a keyboard?

Find the curly brackets { } on a standard US computer keyboard near the Enter key on the right-hand side (see image below). They're on the same key as the square brackets [ ].

US style computer keyboard with highlighted curly bracket keys located near the enter key

To type a curly bracket, press and hold the shift key, then press the open { or closed } bracket key.

 

References

[Bracket key on a computer keyboard]. (n.d.). Computer Hope. https://www.computerhope.com/jargon/c/curlybra.htm