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First-Year Composition

For all first-year composition classes: ENG 101, ENG 107, ENG 102, ENG 108, ENG 105.

Step Four

STEP 4: DEVELOP A SEARCH STRATEGY TO FIND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Nearly everyone is aware of and uses Google and its other services, Google ScholarGoogle BooksGoogle NewsYouTube, etc., to search and find information on the open Internet, but there are special tips and tricks to easily search for good information. Searching in the library databases and catalog using keywords, limiters, and Boolean phrases will yield higher quality scholarly resources for your paper.

Database Search Operators

Unlike a web search engine like Google, research databases work more efficiently when you use Search Operators.  For many students this is a new way of searching that requires new habits.  The first thing you need to do is reduce your topic/research question down to only the most important keywords that describe your information need.  Then put those keywords into combinations following the instructions below.

Search (Boolean) operators are used to combine concepts or ideas when searching. The three search operators you will use in searching are ANDOR, and occasionally NOT. The operator you select will determine if the number of results you retrieve is increased or decreased. In most searches you will use a combination of these operators in order to narrow or broaden your results as needed.

AND

Use AND in between words in a search to:

  • narrow your results
  • tell the database that you want ALL search terms included in the results

EXAMPLE: Cats AND Dogs

Searches for cats AND dogs will retrieve articles that contain both the word "cats" and the word "dogs." If an article only contains the word "cats" but not the word "dogs," that article will not be retrieved.

OR

Use OR in a search to:

  • broaden your results
  • tell the database that you want EITHER search term in your results
  • connect two or more similar concepts (synonyms)

EXAMPLE: Cats OR Dogs

Searches for cats OR dogs will retrieve all the articles that contain the word "cats," the word "dogs," or both. You can also add more search terms into the mix, with the understanding that this will further expand your search.

NOT

Use NOT in a search to:

  • narrow your search
  • exclude words from your search
  • tell the database to ignore certain things that may be related to your search terms

EXAMPLE: Cats NOT Dogs

Searches for cats NOT dogs will retrieve all the articles that contain the word "cats" but exclude from that list anything that uses the word "dogs." You have to be very careful when using this operator, as it will severely restrict your results and you may miss something important. An example of when to use NOT might be when you're looking for articles about dolphins (the animal) and you keep getting results with Dolphins (the Miami football team). In this case, you could do a search like, dolphins NOT football.

Using Limiters to Narrow Results

Most databases give you the option of using limits to narrow your search results.

A few of the most commonly used limits are:

  • Full Text
  • Scholarly (Peer-Reviewed) Journals
  • Date 
  • Source Type

limit to options

Source Type: Academic Journals

Keywords and Controlled Vocabulary

After forming a search using keywords, quickly scan relevant articles and pay particular attention to the subject terms and author supplied keywords. These will provide you with new keywords to incorporate into your search and provide you with more accurate results.

Article with citation clues highlighted

Refine Results

TOO MANY SEARCH RESULTS

  • Find better search terms or keywords. Think of terms that are more specific and modify your search.
  • Add more search terms. Start with a smaller number of keywords and then add more terms to refine your search. 
  • Use limiters. Limiters such as date and format will give you more targeted results. 
  • Do not use OR. Using OR between terms will search for all instances of each term. 
  • Notice the default search options. Databases often search in the title, author, abstract and subject fields. Be specific and search for the terms in just the title or subject field. 
  • Narrow down your topic. Your topic may be too broad so think about a more focused aspect of the topic.
    • For example, students --> college students --> freshmen 

TOO FEW SEARCH RESULTS

  • Try a database on your topic. Search in a database that specializes in a certain subject because it covers the subject discipline in greater depth. Use Databases by Subject or consult a Research Guide created by a librarian for help. 
  • Broaden your topic. Did you start too narrow and specific? Is the topic too new? Think about broader search terms on the subject. 
  • Change your search terms. Consider similar or related terms.
  • Use fewer search terms. Start with a smaller number of keywords and add more as needed. 
  • Use fewer limiters. Limiters such as date or format can cause you to have too few results. Remove one or more limits to expand your search to include more results.
  • Check your spelling.  Unlike Google, research databases often do not suggest a correct spelling. 
  • Use OR with synonyms. 
  • Use wildcard (usually a question mark)  or truncation (an asterisk)  to include additional variations of your search terms. Consult the help section of the database for more specific information.

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