Forming a Better Search
Using keywords, subjects, and operators
Why Not Google
• Popular search engines are useful for many things,
but they have some drawbacks when it comes to
finding academic sources.
• They usually generate far too many results, making it
difficult to find sources that you can actually use.
• Most of the results are sources that are not reliable
for academic research.
• These search engines are well designed to find
undisputed facts, but students are rarely asked to
write papers on things that are undisputed.
Why You Should Use a Database
• Databases such as Academic OneFile, JSTOR, and
others painstakingly cultivate collections dedicated
to reliable, scholarly materials.
• While these databases can be a little more
complicated to use, correct usage can generate much
more useful results that actually save you time.
• Many article databases also provide citations that
make creating works cited lists easier.
Keyword vs Subject
• One of the first things to consider, when searching an
article database or even your local library catalog is
“Should you do a keyword search or a subject
• Keyword searches are basic and include a few
‘keywords’ that might be found anywhere in an
item’s description. This includes the majority of
searches and is the type of search generally done on
popular engines such as Google.
• Keyword searches are simple and fast, but
sometimes pull up too many results or results that
are not accurate enough.
• Keyword searches can be a good starting
place, especially if your topic is very specific; such as
“childhood diabetes.” They can also be helpful in
searches that involve more than one discipline, such
as: “biology” and “psychology”.
• Subject searches are powerful, but require you to
choose the subject that you desire. Many database
searches allow you to perform subject and/or author
searches from their ‘advanced’ options.
• All academic database articles are labeled with
‘subject headings’ according to their content. If you
can identify the appropriate subject, you can pull up
every article in that database under that subject.
• ‘Childhood diabetes’ would be a good choice for a
subject search, as it is a broad but specific topic. It is
specific and uses common words for the subject.
When doing a keyword search, you might have used
something like “children and diabetes”, which would
pull up any articles involving both children and
• Subject searches can be much more effective than
• If you perform a keyword search and find that you
receive too many results, or that the results are not
on quite the correct subject; you might attempt a
• One method of finding a correct subject for a subject
search, is to do a keyword search and go into an
article that is on the subject you want.
• Most databases will show you a list of ‘subjects’ or
‘subject headings’ that you can then use for a subject
What To Avoid
• Most searches are keyword searches, so we will
discuss a few things that you can avoid which will
improve your keyword searches.
• Avoid using too many words, especially articles and
one-letter words such as:
a, I, am, at, the, are, by, do, is, to, you, etc.
• You do not want to type a sentence for your
search, you only want to identify and list the
important key terms. Don’t use punctuation.
Identifying Terms For Your Search
• When performing a search you will want to use
natural language and focus on the key concepts of
• For instance, if your research question was “What
complications arise in children with diabetes?”
‘What’, ‘arise’, ‘in’, and ‘with’ are all words that do
you very little good in a search.
• The key concepts are ‘childhood diabetes’ and
‘complications’, so you might search for
“complications” and “childhood diabetes”.
• Another way to improve your keyword searches is to
include the simple operators: AND, OR, NOT.
• While not all searches allow operators, most will be
able to use these three and each has a specific
• AND will search for an item that includes both the
word to its left and to its right. So instead of search
complications childhood diabetes, you might search
complications and childhood diabetes.
• OR performs a similar function by searching for an
item that has either one of the terms included. It
only requires one of them in order to pull up a result.
• This is best used when you have two alternative
words that may both yield suitable results.
• For instance, in our above search ‘Complications’
may not pull up every useful article. You could do a
search using: complications or problems.
• This is a good strategy for words that may be too
specific or have many synonyms, such as
‘complications’. If your search does not pull up many
results, you may use a thesaurus to look up
synonyms to some of the words involved.
• NOT is a useful operator for excluding a specific
word. While useful, it should be used carefully.
• NOT is helpful when your search results keeps pulling
up articles that feature one of your terms, but is not
actually on the subject that you desire.
• NOT can be a complicated operator to use as it is
sometimes difficult to select a word that will remove
undesired results, without removing articles that you
• The last tool that you might use to improve your
searches is called truncation. Truncation is
sometimes problematic as some databases do not
allow it, while others use different symbols for it; or
for different results.
• Truncation, at its simplest, is the use of a special
symbol to replace letters in a word. This will instruct
the database to find many variations of that same
• The common symbols (or wildcards) involved are:
*, ?, #.
• When searched Childhood diabetes, you may be
concerned that childhood will rule out some results
that might be useful. In this case, you can use
truncation and change childhood into child*
• The resulting search will find words that begin with
child, such as: child, children, childhood, child’s, etc.
• Truncation can be useful for finding
plurals, alternative spellings for some words (such as
color which is sometimes spelt colour), and for
finding related concepts that have similar spellings
(such as astro*:
astronomy, astronomer, astrobiology, etc.)
• Thank you for taking the time to read through this
• If you have any questions, please visit the Reference
Desk or email reference at email@example.com for more
assistance or to schedule a library instruction class
with one of our reference librarians.