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Effective Library Research for Politics Dissertations: 5. Find: How to search

Online support to assist with planning and conducting your library dissertation research

To get the best results from online search services you need to input effective searches. 

The databases are not intelligent and will not understand your search topic.  

You need to devise and enter your search in a way that the databases can process to retrieve relevant search results for you.

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

  1. Identify your search terms
  2. Combine your Search terms
  3. Use search techniques to enhance your search
Explore the guidance below on these three areas and then you can self test your knowledge and understanding with the quiz. You can use your Search Strategy Template to plan out and record the keywords you plan on using in your search.

1. Identify your search terms

The exercise you conducted to map out your research topic/concepts will also help you produce appropriate keywords.  Think about those topics/concepts and produce lists of keywords that you could use to track down information on those topics.

Think carefully about suitable keywords and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material - not so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.

As with mapping out your research concepts, you may find it useful to adopt similar techniques -  e.g. brainstorming, words lists or mind maps to generate your keywords

This video provides tips on how you can identify keywords that you can use in your searching.

This example illustrates how you might

1. pick out key terms from a research topic

2 break them down into keywords, alternative terms, variations and subject specific terminology that can be used for searching

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.

                           Fig. 1                                                                                                     Fig. 2

The three most commonly used operators are ANDORNOT.  These are known as Boolean operators. They can be used to broaden or narrow a search and to exclude unwanted search terms and concepts.

You can type these operators in between your search terms (Fig. 1) or you can use the drop down options in the Advanced Search option (Fig. 2). Look at the help pages on the database you want to use for specific guidance.   

This video provides guidance on how you can combine your keywords to construct effective database searches.

3. Use search techniques to improve your search

You can use search techniques to help improve your searching. By applying these techniques, you can increasereduce or improve the relevancy of your search results, making it easier to access to the right materials. 

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.

The asterisk * symbol is most commonly used for truncation. However, check out the help screens as  !, ?, or # may also be used.

For example:

entrepreneur* will find entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial etc.

Global* will find global, globalise, globalize, globalisation, globalization etc.

Use it with care to avoid finding too many alternatives.

Wildcards are similar to truncation but they are used to substitute for a single letter or no letter in a word.

They are useful for irregular plurals and for British/American English spellings.

They broaden your search by including variant word spellings.

The question mark symbol is most commonly used. However, check out the help screens as  ! , *, or # may also be used. 

For example:

wom?n will find woman and women

optimi?ation will find optimisation and optimization

model?ing will find modeling and modelling


For more, see the Search tips guide.

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.

Always check the Database Help screens, as some databases may use different symbols.

Phrase searching examples:

"Private Finance Initiative"

"compulsory voting"


For more, see the Search tips guide.

What are database fields?

Records in library catalogues and online databases are made up of fields containing pieces of bibliographic information which describe the item in details.

Fields differ between databases but common fields include:

  • author
  • title
  • journal title
  • abstract
  • publisher
  • date/year of publication
  • subject/descriptor

Why use field searching?

Field searching makes more search more focused and can be useful if you are overwhelmed by search results.

If you do not use field searching, databases usually run a keyword search against the full database record, leading to a very wide search.

For example, a keyword search for William Shakespeare will find items authored by William Shakespeare but also items that are about Shakespeare and his work.  An Author Search for William Shakespeare would be a more limited search.

You will usually need to use the Advanced Search option to easily access the field searching options.  

You can combine multiple fields using the boolean ANDORNOT operators.

The screenshot below illustrates field searching in the Business Source Complete database.

Note the wide choice of fields and how you can search across multiple fields for relevant content.  As Business Source Complete holds business related information it has a number of fields appropriate to that discipline.  You will find different fields in databases from other disciplines

Search Techniques Quiz

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