Database Search Strategies

Once you have chosen a database to search for journal articles on your topic, here are some strategies for creating an effective search:

Step 1: Write your topic out in sentence or question form

How did Aboriginals participate in the fur trade in Canada?

Step 2: Break your topic sentence up into main ideas or keywords

Aboriginals, fur trading, Canada

Step 3: Think of synonyms or alternate words to describe each concept

Aboriginals, natives, First Nations, indigenous

Tip: Use dictionaries, encyclopedias, or a thesaurus to find synonyms (alternate words).

Step 4: Add "Boolean operators" (AND, OR) to make a complete search statement

  • Use AND to limit or narrow your search to results that mention all of your keywords.
  • Use OR to broaden your search to include synonyms.

Aboriginal AND fur trading AND Canada
Aboriginals OR natives OR Indigenous

Step 5: Add wildcards to search for all possible word endings

A wildcard is usually represented by a *.  This is also called truncation.

Aboriginal* OR native* 

Step 6: Add quotation marks (if relevant) to search for phrases

A phrase is usually created by "[phrase]".  

"climate change"  "Cold War"  "human rights"

Step 7: Evaluate your results

If you are finding too many or too few results, try these tricks:

To broaden your search (find more):

  • Find synonym for each keyword.
  • Search for a broader concept (dog instead of poodle).
  • Use wildcards/truncation.

To narrow your search (few fewer):

  • Add another concept or idea to your search with AND.
  • Use more specific words (poodle instead of dog).
  • Use a phrase or phrases.

Watch this video on creating a structured search: Search faster, search smarter (University of Sidney)

Content last reviewed: July 31, 2018