Database Search Tips

Key Words and Synonyms

Research databases don’t search like Google. One major difference is that not all databases let you search with everyday or  “natural language” terms. Learning a few tricks and search strategies will help you find more relevant results. You’ll want to begin by narrowing your topic idea down into a few key concepts and terms. For example, if your essay is about the mental health of immigrants in school settings, you might search for key words such as mental health, immigrants, and school. Next, you’ll want to think of synonyms for those words and more precise terms so that you can try different approaches to your research. For example, mental health might also be well-being, psychology, or mental state, or it could be a specific mental disorder such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or drug or alcohol abuse. Immigrants could also be refugees or migrant workers, or you could focus on a specific group of immigrants. Similarly, school could also be written as education, academics, or more precisely as elementary school, high school, or college. Taking a bit of time to think of synonyms is helpful. If your initial search does not yield what you need, try again using some of the synonyms.

Boolean Operators

Database searches also enable you to use Boolean operators to specify what you a searching for. Boolean operators are simply words that show the connections between your search terms, in order to further refine your search to get sources that are most relevant to your topic/working thesis.  Boolean operators are and, or, and not. You can also add in quotation marks to search for exact words or phrases.

  • Use and to narrow a search.  For example, if you search for “vegetables” and “genetically modified,” you will only get results that include both of these search terms (as opposed to getting results that deal with just one or the other).
  • Use or to broaden your search.  For example, if you search for “vegetables” or “genetically modified,” you may get some results that include both, but may get other results that include articles on genetically modified fruits, meats, and other items, for example.
  • Use not to leave things out of your search.  For example, if you search for “vegetables” not broccoli and “genetically modified,” you will get results that may include a variety of articles on genetically-modified vegetables but will exclude articles that mention broccoli.

The picture below shows the breadth of information you would find by using the different Boolean operators; the information you would find is colored purple.

Graphic: Boolean Operators. Three sets of overlapping circles. First pair: one labeled "enterprise," one is "business." Both are colored in purple, and underneath is "enterprise OR business" with OR in red. Second pair: "economy" and "finance." Both are white, with only the small part overlapping in purple. Underneath, "economy AND finance," with AND in red. Third pair: "enterprise" and "Star Trek." Enterprise is purple but Star Trek is white. Underneath, enterprise NOT Star Trek, with NOT in red. Bottom right drawing of stylized Dr. Spock from Star Trek.


View the following video for another good visual representation of the breadth of information you would find using Boolean operators.


Databases also have options to revise your search by using limiters, such as searching for only peer-reviewed articles, articles within a specific timeframe, articles from a specific type of source, or articles about a particular subject.

Summary of Search Tips

Watch the following video, which clearly summarizes tips and shortcuts for effective database searching. Some of the tips include:

  • using the advanced search option within a database
  • using Boolean operators AND or NOT to combine your keywords in a single search
  • finding full-text articles
  • using quotation marks around a compound term
  • using the subject terms index or the thesaurus in the database to find the best search terms
  • searching within a certain publication
  • using the cite feature to help you create citations