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Effective database searching

Why plan your search?

Before you begin searching, think about the words you need to use in your search. Spending five minutes on this at the start will save you having to re-run searches with words you've forgotten to use, and will give you a higher chance of finding relevant items.

It's also useful to keep a note of what you have searched if you are doing your research over a longer period of time - it can be frustrating running the same searches because you can't remember the terms you used previously.

Step 1: write out your search as a sentence

This is our example topic written out as a sentence:

The dangers of vaping in teenagers

Step 2: identify the important words and concepts

Translate your sentence into keywords. For the example above, the keywords might be:

  • dangers
  • vaping
  • teenagers

As most databases will search for exactly what you type in, you need to think of all possible synonyms (different words with the same meaning) and variant spellings. If you don't do this you might miss out on key articles for your research.

The following example shows how our sentence has been broken down into keywords and grouped by concept.

Breaking down a topic into keywords and synonyms
Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
dangers vaping teenagers
safety e-cigarettes youth
health electronic cigarettes adolescents


Step 3: think about ways to limit your search

You might find too many references on your topic, so think about ways you could limit your search. Most databases will allow you to limit your search in these ways:

  • Date - do you only want items published after a certain date?
  • Language - do you only want references in English?
  • Geography - do you want information about a specific place or published in a particular country?
  • Type of publication - do you only want references to journal articles, books, or theses? This might influence your choice of database.

Using an advanced search allows you to search for your keywords in a particular field. You can choose to look for your words in the article title, abstract, authors' names or publication title.

For help getting started, download a copy of our database searching plan.

Plan your search now!

Use our database search plan to get you thinking about keywords and limiters for your search.