A few basic principles are likely to be helpful when you're searching for relevant articles or other scholarly works:
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.
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:
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 such as AND, OR, and NOT allow you to combine keywords or subject headings in precise ways.
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.