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Databases: Solving Database Search Problems

PROBLEM: Not sure if I have the right search words!


Remember: The most efficient way to search will often involve multiple keywords (also known as a  'search query')

  • Databases (and also online search engines like Google, Bing, etc.) bring back results that containing the exact word(s) that you put into the search box – no more, no less.
  • If you do a one-word search in a database, you will get many results quickly (like a Google search), but many will not actually be focused on your topic.
  • But if you use several ‘keywords’ to describe your topic - and add the word AND (in capital letters) in between them - the database will bring back a more focused set of results.
    • You 'told' the database that you only wanted the results that had every keyword in them.
    • Most of our databases have an ‘Advanced’ search page where you can put multiple search words in multiple search boxes, with the AND already in between them.


Example: You’re writing a paper about the portrayal of women’s body image in media.


women AND images AND media


body AND image AND women AND media


Example of advanced search interface with multiple keywords





You’re seldom going to get the perfect set of results from the first search you run.

  • Your search - and your 'search query' - evolves as you go along.
  • You may find alternate words and synonyms...
    • in result titles
    • in the abstract (the short synopsis of what the book or article is about)
    • within the book or article’s text
    • in subject terms / indexing terms (the words that databases use to ‘file’ / index their documents).
      • A search result's 'indexing terms' are often listed somewhere near the search result's abstract.

PROBLEM: Too Many Results in General!


If you have chosen a paper topic but are getting many results and are not sure which ones to use – your topic may be too broad – you may need to narrow your topic, make it more specific, before you really can get started finding resources for your paper.

  • The Reference Librarians can give you tips about narrowing topics.
  • After you narrow a topic, you will have several keywords to use in your search, which will give you fewer - but more relevant - results.

a light bulbYou can limit your search results!  You can limit by:

  • date (for example, to get more recent results).
  • to one type of media – books, news, or articles.
  • to peer-reviewed or academic only.

These limiters tend to be available to the left of your search results.

Examples of database limiters

PROBLEM: Too Many Off-Topic Results!


Most of our databases by default search for your keyword(s) in the entire text - the whole document.

  • Some results will be what you’re looking for and relevant to your topic…others will not be.
  • Your keyword may only have been mentioned briefly somewhere, and the article or book may not really be about your topic at all.

a light bulbTry Field Searching

  • Most databases have that advanced search page where you can choose exactly where your  keywords have to be found.
  • Those choices are usually in a pull-down menu next to the search box.
  • You may want your keywords to be found in locations such as:
    • title
    • abstract
  • If so, the article is far more likely to be focused on your topic.

Screenshot of several database search fields


a light bulbTry Subject searching

  • Databases use subject terms / controlled vocabulary / thesaurus terms to 'file' their content.
  • If you aren't getting the type of results you want, try using that database's subject terms as search words. 
  • Most databases have a link to a list of these terms near the top of the webpage.
  • Some databases offer you a subject terms search where you can compare your search topic words to the database subject terms.
    • Sometimes there isn't always an exact, matching subject term.
  • Some databases also list an item's subject terms:
    • near each search result
    • near the search result's abstract

In the example below, the database uses the subject term peer teaching to organize articles on that topic rather than peer tutoring.

Example of database subject terms


a light bulbTry Phrase Searching

  • Some search topics are multiple word phrases.  Examples:
    • "global warming"
    • "peer tutoring"
    • "genetic engineering"
  • These words must be found together, right next to each other.
  • To tell the database that your search topic is a phrase, just add double quotation marks to either end (").
  • When you do a phrase search, you're being very specific, so it will really narrow down your results.

PROBLEM: Not Enough Results!


a light bulbTry Truncation

  • This is when you type the root of a word, then put an asterisk (*) at the end.
  • This tells the database to give you results containing any possible word that can be formed from that root.
  • Use this when you’re not sure whether you should look for a singular, plural or possessive form of a keyword.

Example: Instead of searching for:

women AND images AND media


wom* AND image* AND media

This will retrieve results containing:

women, woman, women’s, woman’s,  as well as:image, images


a light bulbAdd synonyms to your search query

  • Do this by putting parentheses around multiple synonyms, then putting a capital OR in between those synonyms.

Example:  Instead of searching for:

women AND images AND media


(women OR females) AND images AND media

  • This tells the database that you’ll take results with one keyword OR the other.
  • You’ll take either result, you’ll take both if they’re available.
  • This expands your search and broadens your search results.

Warning SignIf you forget to put the parentheses around your synonyms when using OR, this will not work well, and you will end up with extra, non-relevant results – talk to one of the Reference Librarians if you have any concerns about doing this search technique correctly.