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Research Skills Tutorial

Module 2: Effective Search Strategies

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Understand the basic definition of a database.
  • Recognize different types of databases.
  • Identify the main concepts of a research topic.
  • Develop a list of search terms and a search strategy.
  • Successfully combine search concepts.
  • Understand phrase searching and truncation.
  • Recognize arrangement of search results.


Understanding some basic concepts about database content, structure, and functions will improve your database searching. Even though database content and interfaces may vary from resource to resource, most function in a similar way.

What is a Database?

A database is an organized and searchable collection of information. Databases exist in print, i.e. the telephone book, and electronically, i.e. Academic Search Premier. Each record in the database is composed of fields, which contain specific information for each item.

Many databases index journal articles, but others include statistical data, books, dissertations, or directory information. No single, comprehensive database of all information exists yet!

How Do I Select Relevant Databases?

Coverage varies from one database to another; not all databases are equal in their content. There are three basic types of databases useful for research:

  • Bibliographic
    Bibliographic databases list citations or references to periodical articles, books, government publications, and videos. They may or may not provide specific information on where to locate the item.
  • Full-text
    Full-text databases provide citations, as well as the complete text of the information. Few periodical article databases provide the full-text for every article listed.
  • Numeric
    Numeric databases provide quantitative data. This includes statistical data and company financial information.

Using the research strategy outlined in Module 1, Getting Started, will help you identify the types of information needed for your research project. Now you must select the databases or print materials that will provide the information you need. By ascertaining the content of a database, you can determine its usefulness for your needs.

To identify database content, ask a librarian, professor, or colleague familiar with the database; look at the description of the database on the A-Z Database List; or experiment with the database.

See Module 3, Finding Books, and Module 4, Finding Periodical Articles, for further explanation.

Developing Search Terms

Choosing suitable search terms is crucial to creating an effective database search. The first step in developing a list of search terms is to break your topic into concepts. Here's an example:
Topic and examples of search terms

The next step is to make a list of alternate terms for each concept. Brainstorming for related terms may produce a list like this:
Example of related terms

Another way to do this is to consult the database thesaurus, or list of subject headings. For example, libraries use the Library of Congress Subject Headings(LCSH) to assign subject index terms that describe items listed in a library catalog. All the items in a library catalog on the same topic are assigned the same subject heading. When you perform a subject search using an LCSH subject heading, you retrieve all the items in that library catalog on that topic.

You may also encounter alternative terms or synonyms in your background reading or in other experience with the topic. These alternate terms can be useful in constructing keyword searches. Keyword searches generally match on words appearing in titles, subjects, abstracts or in the content itself. Keyword searches are a much broader search and may produce less relevant results.

Combining Search Concepts

Once you've identified keywords, related terms, synonyms, and subjects, you will want to combine these terms to locate focused, relevant results. The Boolean operators, specifically AND, OR, and NOT, are used to combine search terms in three ways. These operators are found in most databases. Consulting a librarian or a database help screen can often clarify how Boolean operators are used in the database at hand.

  • AND
    The "and" operator combines terms in the sense that "this term and also that term" must be present. Using the terms from the example above, your search query could appear as:

    leadership AND college AND effectiveness

    All three concepts are expected to be present. The "and" combination results in fewer items. This is graphically represented as

Boolean searching: AND example

  • OR
    The "or" operator combines terms in the sense that "either this term or that term" may be present. An effective use of the "or" operator is to combine synonyms or related terms. Again using the earlier example, the "or" operator could be used to combine:

    college OR university OR higher education

    The "or" operator widens the net of the search, producing more results. This is graphically represented as

Boolean searching: OR example

    Many databases and Internet search engines automatically perform an "or" search.
  • NOT
    The "not" operator eliminates one search term entirely from the search results. "Not" can be used to delete a subset of a larger topic. For example, "computers AND NOT laptops." Graphically, this is represented as

Boolean searching: AND NOT example

Advanced Search Features

Phrase searching:
Many databases and Internet search engines allow you to search for an exact phrase, that is words appearing in a specific order. Some databases require you use parenthesis around the phrase, while many Internet search engines require quotation marks around the phrase. Ask a librarian or check the help screens for assistance in phrase searching.

Truncation allows you to pull together variations of words beginning with the same root. For example:

educat? – would retrieve educate, education, educated, or educator.

Truncation symbols, like the ? above, vary from one database to another. Check the help screens to determine which symbol is used.

Interpreting Search Results

It is important that you are able to distinguish types of information fairly quickly by examining the citation. Sometimes it can be tricky when all you have in front of you is a database record!

Example of a book citation

For a book, the total number of pages is given; the publication date is the year only; and the publisher is named.

For an article, the starting page number is given, followed by the length of the article; the publication date is more precise than merely the year (i.e., a date, month or season is generally indicated); and the publisher is not named

Example of an article citation

At first glance, this citation appears to be a combination of both of the above citations. The word “IN” is generally a key element in distinguishing the book chapter citation.

Example of a book chapter citation


Even though database content and interfaces may vary from one source to another, developing and combining search terms are skills you can apply no matter what database you search in. Understanding citations will help you distinguish between different types of information.