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CSSIS: Library Skills Refresher

To get the best results from online search services you need to invest time up front to develop an effective search strategy.

It is useful to think of this as a three step process.

1. Identify your search terms

Before you start searching, spend some time defining your research topic. 

Ask yourself:

  • What is it that you want to find out?
  • What search terms or keywords will find this information?

You are likely to need to use a range of different terms and alternatives

Use whatever technique works best for you - e.g. brainstorming, words lists or mind maps etc. can help you think around your topic and identify all possible search concepts and terms. 


2. Combine your search terms

It is possible to use a number of different keywords or search terms in a single search, by using operators

Operators link your search terms and define the relationship between them. This enables more accurate searching and therefore more relevant results being returned. It also saves you time as you don't have to carry out numerous similar searches where just one or two search terms are changed each time.


Narrows down a search and works by looking for both terms you specify (in any order). This narrows a search as both terms must appear. 

e.g. environment AND crime


Broadens a search and works by looking for either of the terms you specify, and will find articles where either term or both terms are mentioned (in any order). This broadens a search as is useful for retrieving synonyms or variant spellings. 

e.g. depression OR anxiety


Excludes terms from the search. This operator isn't recommended for systematic reviews as it is highly likely you will lose relevant studies. You will need to manually filter out unwanted results. 

e.g. artificial intelligence NOT robotics‚Äč

3. Use search techniques to improve your search

You can use search techniques to help improve your searching.

By applying these techniques, you can increase, reduce or improve the relevancy of your search results, making it easier to access to the right materials.   The most useful are truncation and phrase searching.


Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.

To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.

The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.

For example:

  • moral* will find moral, morals, morally, morality etc.
  • child* will find child, children, childlike, childhood etc.

Use it with care to avoid finding too many alternatives.

Phrase Searching

Phrase searching is the most limiting technique as it is used to specify that your terms must appear next to each other, and in the order you specify.

Phrase searching is commonly achieved by surrounding your phrase with quotation marks.

Phrase searching examples:

  • "environmental anthropology"
  • "group dynamics"

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