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Database Search Tips: Choosing Search Terms

This guide provides general techniques and tips to help you search databases more effectively.

Choosing Keywords

Choosing your search terms is the most important step in your research process. 

  • Using your research question, identify the most important 2 - 4 words from your research question.  These are your key concepts.
  • For each key concept, make a list of synonyms or related words.  Use a thesaurus to find synonyms, and/or list any specific examples of your concepts. 
  • Combine your search terms using the techniques listed in this guide to optimize your results.
  • If you don't get as many results as you would like using your keywords, try searching with Subject Terms.

 

Search Example

Research question:  How does urban agriculture benefit a community?

Key concepts:

  • urban
  • agriculture
  • benefit

Synonyms/ related concepts

urban agriculture benefit
community farming prosperity
city gardening social aspects
town food production economic development
  sustainability  

 

Conducting your Search

When you start your search, use the key concepts from your research question. 

  • Some databases will suggest keywords as you enter yours into the search box.  Feel free to use these suggestions if they are relevant. 
  • As a rule, don't type long phrases into the search box.   
  • Use Boolean operators (and, or, not) to combine those key terms into powerful searches.
  • Use truncation or wildcards to quickly search for alternate spellings or endings.
  • Many databases automatically insert the Boolean AND when you enter multiple terms.  If you want to search for a particular phrase, put the words in quotation marks(" ").

Examples:

"urban agriculture" AND community

urban AND (agriculture OR farming)

"urban agriculture" AND "economic development"

Keywords vs. Subject Terms

Is there a difference between keywords and subject terms?  Yes.  Keywords are the words you come up with to describe your topic.  Subject terms or headings are "controlled language" words used by databases to ensure that all items relevant to a particular topic will be found. 

Searching with subject headings is the most precise way to search many databases.  However, it's not as flexible as a keyword search because you must know the exact term to use.  It often helpful to start with your keywords and look at a few items from your results list.  If you find a few good articles, look at the list of subject terms in those records.  Use these terms and run your search again.  Sometimes you can click on a subject term and it will automatically run the search for you.

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