Database Searching

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 boiling your topic idea down into a few key concepts and terms. For example, if your paper is about the mental health of immigrants in school settings, you would search for key words like 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.

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.

Database searches enable you to use Boolean operators to specify what you a searching for. You could type in mental health AND refugees into the search bar to narrow your results to things that only contain both of those concepts. You can use the operator OR to broaden your results to search for mental health AND refugees OR immigrants. You can also add in quotation marks to search for exact words or phrases.

Databases also have options to revise your search by using limiters, such as searching for only peer-reviewed articles, within a specific date, a specific type of source, or by subject. Watch the following video to learn more about tips and shortcuts for effective database searching. Some of the tips include:

  • Use the advanced search within a database
  • Use the Boolean operators AND or NOT to combine your keywords in a single search
  • If you know you want the entire article, check the box for the full text
  • Don’t do a search that is too broad or too narrow
  • Use quotation marks around a compound term
  • Add other keywords to narrow your search, and use search limiters like source type, publication year, source type, etc.
  • Using the subject terms index or the thesaurus in the database to find the best search terms
  • Remember that you can also use databases to search within a certain publication
  • Utilize the cite feature in databases to help you create citations