Skip to Main Content

Organizational Leadership

Basic Principles for Database Searching

A few basic principles are likely to be helpful when you're searching for relevant articles or other scholarly works:

  • Identify the key concepts (search terms) that comprise your research topic (e.g., learning styles, academic performance, and medical education).
  • Identify synonyms and near-synonyms for those terms.
  • Consider using subject headings, if there are subject headings that match your terms.  (See below.)
  • Use truncation (*), quotation marks, Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT), and parentheses, as appropriate.  (See below.)
  • Use limiters to limit your search to particular
    types of journals (peer reviewed or not)
    types of articles (research study, literature review, book review, editorial, etc.)
    research methods (case study, survey, clinical study, experimental study, etc.)
    populations of interest (children, adults, men, women, immigrants, etc.)
    geographic areas.
  • If your search is complex, considering breaking it down into its component parts, then combining the parts using Search History.  By checking the results of each component search, you can identify which parts of the overall search are not working well.  For example:
    Search 1: capital punishment OR death penalty
    Search 2: effectiveness
    Search 3: “crime rate” OR “violent crime rate” OR murder OR rape OR assault
    Search 4: (“United States” OR US OR America*) AND (France OR Germany OR Switzerland OR Sweden)
    Search 5: Search 1 AND Search 2 AND Search 3 AND Search 4.
  • Be prepared to modify your search in response to the results you get.  Don’t just say “These results aren’t good; I’ll try something else.”  Instead, recognize why your results aren’t good and what you might do to improve the search.
  • Be prepared to modify your understanding of the topic based on the results you find.


It is often useful to search by keywords, which are words that appear in the document (e.g, the journal article).  Most databases allow you to specify where you want to search for the keywords—in the title of the article, in the abstract (the article summary that appears at the beginning of the article), or anywhere in the entire document (the full text), for instance.

For instance, assume that you want to know whether workers who move (migrate) on a regular basis experience greater career success than others.  If you search for the keyword migration and select Abstract as the place to search, the search results will include all the documents with migration in the abstract.  (Your actual search would combine migration with other search terms, of course.)

Two strategies may be helpful when you're using keywords to search.

  1. You can truncate a keyword by using an asterisk (*).  This searches for all keywords that begin with the specified characters.  For instance, a search for migrat* will return all the documents with words such as migrate, migrating, migration, migrations, and migratory.
  2. You can use quotation marks to specify that you're looking for a particular phrase (two or more words immediately adjacent to each other) rather than for those same words wherever they might appear.  For instance, a keyword search for "Manhattan College" (with the quotes) will retrieve only those documents with that exact phrase.  Without the quotation marks, some database will return all the documents where both "Manhattan" and "College" appear, even if the words don't appear next to each other.

Subject Headings (Descriptors)

A keyword search for migration will return works on the migration of humans, the migration of animals, and the migration of chemicals from packaging to foods.  In some cases, that’s fine; you can just ignore the records that are clearly not what you wanted.  In other cases, you’ll want to use a subject heading (also known as a descriptor) to refine your search.  Subject headings differ from keywords in two important ways:

  • They are assigned by individuals who have evaluated the actual content of the article
  • They are selected from a list of available subject headings, each of which is carefully defined.

Human migration and bird migration, for instance, will be two different subject headings.  More specialized databases will have more specialized subject headings.  For instance, the POPLINE (population studies) database has separate subject headings for migration, residential mobility, internal migration, international migration, labor migration, forced migration, migrants, nonmigrants, return migration, rural-urban migration, settlement, resettlement, and temporary migration.

The subject headings used in one database will not necessarily match those used in another.  Be sure to choose your subject headings from those listed in the thesaurus of the database you’re searching.

Boolean Operators and Parentheses

Boolean operators such as AND, OR, and NOT allow you to combine keywords or subject headings in precise ways.

  • If you search for lions AND tigers, every document in your search results should deal with both lions and tigers.
  • If you search for lions OR tigers, every document in your search result should deal with either lions or tigers or both.

NOT excludes documents that have the word.  For instance, music NOT jazz will return articles that deal with types of music other than jazz.

Parentheses indicate which Boolean operators take precedence.  For instance,

(lions OR tigers) AND “accidental death”
is different from
lions OR (tigers AND “accidental death”).

In general, synonyms should be connected with OR while different key concepts (or groups of concepts) should be connected with AND.  For example, a search such as (college* OR universit* OR "higher education") AND "accidental death" might be used to search for articles on accidental deaths at colleges and universities.

A note on Google Scholar: You can use AND, OR, quotation marks, and parentheses with Google Scholar, just as you would with any library database.  Google Scholar doesn’t use NOT, but it does have the exact same function; to indicate NOT, put a minus sign immediately in front of the word (e.g., music –jazz).  In Google Scholar, AND is implied if you don't type it in, so if you enter any two words without quotation marks, Google Scholar assumes that you want documents with the first word AND the second word.