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Effective database searching


This section describes some important methods you can use to search efficiently and effectively. It gives you guidance on:

  • using symbols to search for alternative word endings and spellings
  • searching for phrases
  • performing more specific searches
  • combining your concepts in a search statement

Search strategies

Truncation and wild cards

Most databases are not intelligent. They don't understand the meaning of what you're looking for - they just search for the exact letters you type in. Wildcard and truncation symbols can be used to retrieve variant spellings and word endings, enabling you to overcome this problem.

  • a wildcard symbol (?) replaces a single letter. It's useful for retrieving alternate spelling spellings (i.e. British vs. American English) and simple plurals
    wom?n will find woman or women
    behavio?r will find behaviour or behavior

  • a truncation symbol (*) retrieves any number of letters - useful to find different word endings based on the root of a word
    teen* will find teen, teens, teenager, teenagers
    vap* will find vape, vaping, vapid, vapour, and vaporiser, Using the truncation symbol (*) may search for unexpected words e.g. searching for hospital* with find not only hospital and hospitals but also hospitality.

Hint: Not all databases use the ? and * symbols, so check the online help screens before you start.

Search operators (also called Boolean operators) allow you to include multiple words and concepts in your searches. This means you can search for all of your terms at once rather than carrying out multiple searches for each concept.

There are three main operators:

  • OR - for more general results
  • AND - for more specific results
  • NOT  - to exclude specific terms from your search

Watch the video (from University of Reading) on using search operators


women OR female

Using OR will bring you back records containing either of your search terms. It will return items that include both terms, but will also return items that contain only one of the terms.

This will give you a broader range of results.

OR can be used to link together synonyms. These are then placed in brackets to show that they are all the same concept.

  • (cat OR kitten OR feline)
  • (women OR female)

In the search shown, some of the articles will only contain the word "women", some will only contain the word "female" and some will contain both words.



women AND Africa

Using AND will find items that contain both of your search terms, giving you a more specific set of results.

If you're getting too many results, using AND can be a good way to narrow your search.  In the search shown, all the articles will have both the words "women" and "Africa" in them.Two overlapping circles containing the terms 'women' and 'Africa'. Only the overlapping section of the circles is highlighted.



women NOT Africa

Using NOT will find articles containing a particular term, but will exclude articles containing your second term.

Use this with caution - by excluding results you might miss out on key resources. In the search shown, all the articles will have the word "women" and no articles will contain the word "Africa"Two overlapping circles containing the words 'women' and 'Africa'. Only the circle containing 'women' is highlighted - the overlapping sections and second circle are not highlighted.

Phrase searching

Sometimes your search may contain common words (i.e. development, communication) which will retrieve too many irrelevant records, even when using an AND search. To look for a specific phrase, use inverted commas:

  • "electronic cigarettes"
  • "young adults"

Your search will only bring back items containing these exact phrases. This function works on most databases (including Google!).

Some databases automatically perform a phrase search if you do not use any search operators. For example, "cigarettes teens" is not a phrase used in English so you may not find any items on the subject. Use AND in between your search words to avoid this.

Proximity Searching

Some databases use proximity operators, which are a more advanced search function. You can use these to tell the database how close one word must be to another and, in some cases, in what order. This makes a search more specific and excludes irrelevant records.

For instance, if you were searching for references about women in Africa, you might retrieve irrelevant records for items about women published in Africa. Performing a proximity search will only retrieve the two words in the same sentence, making your search more accurate.

Each database has its own way of proximity searching, so it's important to check the online help before you start.

Bringing it all together: creating search statements

On most databases you can type in a search statement (or search string), which involves combining your search words using search operators. When creating a search statement you must use brackets to ensure correct processing of the search. The database will read your search from left to right, but will perform bracketed terms first (the same way bracketed terms are dealt with first in mathematics). 

  • Words representing the same concept should be bracketed e.g. (women OR gender)
  • Groups of bracketed terms can then be linked with AND or NOT
  • Use " " to search for exact phrases e.g. "electronic cigarettes"

This is an example search statement bringing together our three concepts using the techniques described above. Each concept is separated by AND.

(teen* OR adolescents) AND "electronic cigarettes" AND danger*

Try using the generator below to come up with your own search statement.

Create your search

Query Generator

Search statement generator

Use this tool to generate a search string that you can copy and paste into many of our databases. Type your individual keywords/phrases into each concept box, then add synonyms for each concept on separate lines underneath. You can use truncation (*) and wildcards (?) to find alternative spellings of those words. For example:

  • interven* will find intervene, intervening, intervention, etc.
  • colo?r will find color and colour

Concept 1

Concept 2

Search string

Query Generator Example

Our concepts or keywords have been added to the concept boxes with each concept in a different box. Once we have added ouur concepts or keywords we have added synonyms or alternative words. Once this is completed we have pushed the create search string button to produce a line that we can then copy and paste into a database search field.



Our search string can be copied and pasted into most of our databases