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Psychology: Database Search Tips

Database Search Strategies & Features

Strategies for Search Terms



The words AND, OR, and NOT are three command words that connect your search terms. They are called Boolean Operators.


  • Results contain sources with all search terms
  • Narrows the number and focus of results


  • Results contain sources with any of your search terms
  • Broadens the number and focus of your results
  • Used with synonyms or related terms


  • Eliminates sources containing the term after NOT
  • Narrows the number and focus of the results


gender AND aggression give you results that contain these words together in the same record


gender OR aggression give you results that contain either of the words regardless of whether they appear in the same record


gender NOT sexual identity gives you results that contain gender and no mention of sexual identity

Truncation is a search technique that broadens your search to include various word endings. To truncate your search terms, replace the word ending with an asterisk *

politic* will include records with politics, politician, and political
Adjacency is a way to tell the database that you want words to appear in a specific order. Some databases will do this automatically, but some will not. Add quotation marks around the search terms to force adjacency if needed. "gender identity" will give you records only when these words appear together.
Subject Headings are database-specific preferred terms and are structured vocabulary that field scholars use to discuss their topic.
  • E.g., play (natural language) vs. childhood play behavior (subject heading)

Characteristics of Subject Headings (From MIT Libraries):

  • Pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" words used to describe the content of each item in the database
  • Less flexible to search by - need to know the exact term used
  • Database looks for subjects ONLY in the subject heading filed or descriptor
  • Database looks for subjects ONLY in the subject heading filed or descriptor
  • Use if too many results - can help focus on one aspect of a broader topic
  • Results are usually very relevant to topic

Characteristics of Keywords Characteristics (From MIT Libraries):

  • Natural language and words describing your topic
  • More flexible to search with; can combine together in multiple ways (AND, OR, NOT)
  • Database looks for keywords everywhere in the record
  • May yield too many, too few results, or irrelevant results


When you search for articles, you can use any combination to find what you're looking for.

  • keyword + keyword 
  • subject heading + subject heading
  • keyword + subject heading

Since subject headings are created by someone other than you, you should look for them within the results of your keyword searches or a database thesaurus. Most databases will have a thesaurus.

Subject headings are usually listed within the details of an article. You can also find a thesaurus link within PscyInfo in the Advance Search options above the advance search.

PubMed calls their subject headings MeSH Headings.

An example of when a subject heading might be useful is when you search for aggression. This includes thousands of records, some of which you may not be interested in.  You may find it useful to look at the Thesaurus for a more precise term, like relational aggression.

Refining Search Results (Database Features)

Description Example

Limits provide database-specific recommendations for narrowing a search. Applying limits will filter out results that don’t meet your search requirements. 

Be careful applying the date limiter. It can be too limiting, and you may miss foundational articles that support your topic. Use the Times Cited function can be a better way of finding more recent articles.

Examples of limits/filters:

  • peer review
  • study type
  • format (review, article, book chapter)
The abstract of an article is a brief summary of the article's contents that can help you determine if you want to read the full text. The abstract is usually listed within the search results under an article title.  You can use the abstract to help modify your search by skimming it for additional keywords. In PsycInfo, click on the article title to read the full abstract.


Scholarly articles often have extensive reference lists or bibliographies. Some databases include these in the record and you can link directly to them. You can use references in a bibliography to learn about the research used in writing the article, which may lead you to additional articles about your topic.

Times Cited/cited By

Think of Times Cited references as the opposite of a bibliography. Where bibliographies include references older than the article, Times Cited references are newer than the article. It means someone found the information in the article valuable and cited the article within their own writing.

Times Cited references can help you find more recent articles than the one you are reading.

In PsycINFO, the reference information is in the article's details after clicking on the title.
When you find an article that you think will be good to use, you can take advantage of “related articles” to find similar articles.  There are different formulas for determining how an article is “related,” but it usually combines the same keywords and subject headings. In PsycInfo these sources are typically located in the sidebar.