Skip to Content

Database search tips

Getting started

  • You have your assignment topic and you need journal articles.
  • You know you need to search databases, but how and which ones?
  • This short guide will provide you with a methodology that you can apply to most databases (and many search engines) you will encounter.

1. Find a database

  • Some databases have a very narrow focus, while others contain information on many topics.
  • Select a database that is appropriate for your topic - see the subject guides.

2. Define your terms

  • Translate your enquiry or assignment topic into terms the database can understand.
  • Nouns or noun phrases are best.
  • Also think of synonyms or alternative terms you could use.
  • For example, if your assignment is on the relationship between diet and heart problems, you could use the following search terms: diet, nutrition or food, and heart, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol or atherosclerosis.

3. Start searching

  • If you want an online database to understand you, you need to speak its language. That's why syntax - the way you put your search terms together - matters.
  • Since syntax can vary between databases, you should refer to the database's help or search tips page for the full story.

Syntax tips

Case sensitivity: Most search engines are not case sensitive: they regard upper case, lower case, and mixed case as identical. Some have the capability to match exact case.

Connectors (or 'boolean operators'): Connectors determine how multiple search terms are combined in a search. Three common connectors are and, or and not. Sometimes symbols are used instead of words, i.e. + or -.

  • And: find documents containing all of your search terms.
    • Example: dogs and cats will find documents that contain both words.
  • Or: find documents containing at least one of your search terms. You would use or to connect synonyms or closely related terms.

    • Example: dogs or puppies will find documents that contain either word.
  • Not: exclude words from your results. Not should be used with caution as you could inadvertently exclude relevant results.

    • Example: dogs not cats will only locate documents that include the word dogs, but only if the document does not contain the word cats.

Nesting: The order in which search engines execute your commands is not always obvious. You can use round brackets to control the search sequence.

  • Example: the search term diabetes and (nutrition or food or diet) will find documents that contain one of the words in brackets - i.e. nutrition or food or diet - but only if they also contain the word 'diabetes'.

Proximity operators: locate terms that are close to one another. One such proximity operator is w/#, which you can use to find two words that are # number of pages apart.

  • Example: diabetes w/3 nutrition will find documents where diabetes and nutrition occur within three words of one another, in either order.

Phrase searching: Some databases will treat two or more words entered into the search box as a phrase, while others require you to place a phrase in double quotation marks.

  • Example: "diet and diabetics" will only find documents where the whole phrase is present.

Truncation: Most databases allow end of word truncation, using one character, such as an asterisk, to replace the remaining letters.

  • Example: diabet* will find documents containing diabetes, diabetic, and diabetics.

'Wild cards': Wild cards are characters, such as 'a question mark, used to replace replace a single letter in the middle of a word. They are used to accommodate spelling variations.

  • Example: wom?n will find woman and women; organi?ation will retrieve organization and organisation.

Searching specific fields: Field searching allows you to designate where to search for a specific term. Sometimes there is a drop-down menu to select the field, at other times a field 'qualifier' is added to the search term, such as Smith:au or Smith in au.