Search Strategy For Research Papers

What are Keywords?

Keyword Searching is the most common form of online searching and should be used when you need to know what materials the library or database contains on a specific topic. You should search by keyword if you are unsure about the author or title of an item. Keywords are significant words used to describe information in a catalog, database or search engine. The keywords you choose for searching have a large impact on how many relevant records are retrieved.

Keyword searches are especially useful when:

  • you have incomplete title or author information
  • your topic combines two or more concepts
  • you do not know the exact subject headings for your topic
  • you want to link terms from different parts of a record, such as an author's name and a word from a book title

TIP : Use a thesaurus to help you find synonyms for your keywords

Developing Keywords

Since keywords are a very important piece of researching, it is equally as important to create a list of these words or phrases that will help your search.  Normally, your keywords will be concepts or ideas that are related to your main topic.  Please view the video below for more information on how to create keywords.

 (Thanks goes to the University of Houston Libraries)


Boolean Operators

Boolean operators help to narrow or broaden your search. The most useful Boolean operators to connect your searches are AND, OR, NOT.



AND finds records containing both terms. This narrows the search. For example:

  • body AND image
  • female AND appearance

OR finds records containing either one or both terms. This broadens the search. It can also be used to account for variant spellings. For example:

  • image OR identity
  • female OR girl

NOT finds records containing the first term, but not the second term. This narrows the search. For example:

  • female NOT teen
  • males NOT adolescent

You can use more than one logical connector in the same search statement.

  •  body image AND female NOT teen

 (Thanks goes to the Pfau Library at the Californa State San Bernadino Campus)


When to Use Quotation Marks ""

Use quotation marks when you want to search a specific phrase.  This will make your search more direct, as the database or catalog will search for your keywords in the specified order.  It is a great strategy when your keyword is made up of two or more words.

Our example below is "body image".


If you search the keywords body image without the quotation marks, several resources with other words that may be unrelated to your search will also be found.

Research: Develop Search Strategies

A few standard techniques apply to the searching of library catalogs and other electronic databases, such as the ability to search by title and by author for a specific book or article. Most databases also allow you to to search by keyword and (in most databases) also by subject. Each method has its advantages and limitations. We'll examine Keyword searching first, followed by subject searching.

1. Brainstorm for Keywords

It is always a good idea to take a couple minutes and think about your topic and keywords to use in your searches.

Take the thesis statement example used earlier: “Hydrogen-based cars are the future of environmentally friendly transportation in America.” What keywords might be used to search for relevant sources?

  1. Look at your topic statement or question
    Hydrogen-based cars are the future of environmentally friendly transportation in America.
  2. Break it down into its major concept terms

  3. Think of synonyms and variations of your keywords to use when searching
    hydrogencar /carsenvironmentfriendlyAmerica
     automobileEcologysafeUnited States
     vehicle benefit/

Try It!

Take a moment to brainstorm for keywords and synonyms based on your own topic.

2. Put Your Keywords Together

Once you have a list of keywords to use in your search, you can put your keywords and synonyms together to find the articles you need. Keyword searching offers several means of expanding and focusing searches. These methods apply to most databases although the specific form they take can vary. Databases normally offer a link to a Help section that explains the specifics.

Search term connectors especially AND, OR, and NOT allow you to combine terms.

To focus your search, and combine different aspects of your topic, use AND:

  • hydrogen and car and environment, will find articles with all three of those keywords.

To expand your search and find different word variations, use OR:

  • car OR cars or automobile or vehicle you will find articles with any of those keywords.

Sometimes when you search, you might find some results that are irrelevent. For example, Leonardio DiCaprio is known for driving an environmentally friendly car, but you might not want to find articles about his driving habits. To tell a database to discard certain keywords from your search results, use the word NOT. In some cases certain databases use the phrase AND NOT, but the result is the same.

  • car and environment not DiCaprio will find articles about cars and the environment that have nothing to do with Leo.

Another way of expanding your search is to use truncation. You can search for variations of a word like this:

  • Environment* will find environment, environmental, environmentalism, etc. In many cases, databases will use the * symbol, but this isn't standard, so be sure to consult the help for the specific database you are using.

The best way to do a keyword search is to combine all of these search techniques:

  • (car or automobile or vehicle) and hydrogen and (environment* or ecology*)

    You will notice that when combining synonyms using or, those words are grouped together using parenthesis. Experimentation to see what works never hurts! For example, you might need to change the term “vehicle” to “motor vehicle*" if a lot of sources concerning very irrelevant types of vehicles turn up!

Try It!

Using the keywords and synonyms you wrote down earlier, write a search strategy using AND and OR and use parenthesis to group your synonyms together

3. Which Way to Search: by Subject or Keyword?

Actually, you can use either or both of these methods to search for your topic. But in a keyword search, the computer will look for the word wherever it appears, and in a subject search it will look for the word as an assigned “subject” term, or even as the first word in a set string of terms. What this means can best be shown by example:

If you do a keyword search in our library catalog for “Boston,” you will find books published by publishers located in Boston, books written by George L. Boston, CDs by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, etc., along with books pertaining to Boston. If you wanted to search by subject for books on Boston during the Revolutionary War, you would need to know that "Boston (Mass.) -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783” is the correct string of terms to use (although you could stop short in your typing and leave off the dates at the end).

Either method of searching MAY work satisfactorily on your initial try. For example, a subject search in our library catalog for Solar System would turn up a good listing of books right away, and a simple keyword search for Solar System would work equally well. However, for a topic like China’s one child policy, you would probably need to use additional techniques to find sources.

In short, either method of searching MAY or MAY NOT work well initially – and probably will not prove, by itself, the best and most thorough way of searching. Therefore it can be handy to know of other search techniques.

Note: It is not always easy to determine the best search strategy or combination of strategies for searching one or more databases. Whenever you run into difficulty here, remember that help is available at the library reference desk or through an appointment with a librarian.


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