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Engineering Undergraduate/Transfer Orientation: Online Search Strategies


Here are search strategies you can use to get better, more relevant search results. Some are more applicable to article databases rather than the library catalog, but simple things like brainstorming, Boolean operators, and truncation should work with both. Our Search Strategies Tutorial, while not focused on engineering, shows that these strategies can work with databases in all disciplines.

Search Strategies

Brainstorm keywords and alternate keywords (synonyms) you might want to search. You may not necessarily search all of these terms, and you'll likely come up with more once you begin searching, both new concepts and alternative keywords. For example, if you start with a search on fracking, you will find many articles and other sources use the phrase hydraulic fracturing instead. Another way to brainstorm is by creating a mindmap.

Let's say your topic is autonomous vehicles.

What are some other terms that might be used?

automated, driverless, self-driving, robotic, intelligent

What kind of vehicles are you interested in?

 cars (or automobiles), trucks, drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, boats, underwater (or submersibles or submarines), space

What aspect(s) of autonomous vehicles are you interested in?

 perception, sensors, radar, lidar, sonar, photography, infrared sensors, computer vision

 artificial intelligence/AI, machine learning, neural networks

navigation, navigational systems, mapping, GPS

control, control systems, lateral control, braking, steering control

power, lithium ion batteries, battery management systems

 safety, accidents

ethics (or ethical), legal, privacy, economic(s), security, privacy, hacking

Use "and" and "or" to connect your search terms, to expand or narrow your search results. These may be called Boolean operators.
 

Boolean Operator For Example What Happens to Your Search Results? Visualized
AND

drones AND natural disasters

unmanned aerial vehicles AND wildfires

Retrieves results that include all/both words or phrases. Good for searching very different concepts.

More targeted, but also fewer (maybe too few) results

OR

drones OR unmanned aerial vehicles

natural disasters OR wildfires OR tsunamis, OR earthquakes

Retrieves results that include at least one of your words or phrases, but not necessarily all of them. Good for searching alternate terms.

More (maybe too many search results), including a greater number that may be less relevant

Then combine the two strategies for a more complex search: 

(drones OR unmanned aerial vehicles) AND (natural disasters OR wildfires OR earthquakes OR tsunamis)

With many databases, the "and" is assumed even if it's not typed, so climate change is usually searched as climate AND change.

Truncation (usually with an asterisk, *) allows you to search for words with multiple endings without having to write each one. For example, biofuel* would search for biofuel or biofuels, and alga* for alga and algae. Or spectr* would search for spectra OR spectroscopy OR spectrometry OR spectroscopy OR spectroscopic.

HOWEVER, truncating NANO* (or MICRO*) brings back everything from nanotechnology, nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanostructured, and nanomaterials, to nanodiamonds, nanorobots, nanofish, nanodaisies, nanosponges.... 

You may need to narrow your focus to something more specific (nanoparticles) and/or add more keywords to restrict your search, such as specific materials or applications.


Each database offers options to narrow your search results, saving you time by excluding results that don't meet your search criteria. For example, you may only want to see English-language peer-reviewed journal articles published in the last five years

Common limits (along with using the Boolean and operator) include publication date, document type, language, peer-reviewed (scholarly) articles only, and by subject or descriptor. Some of options for those limits vary between databases. For example, the document limiter in Web of Science includes an option to see only review articles (rather than research articles), while Academic Search Complete lets you limit results for trade publications, magazines, or newspapers along with journal articles.

Every record, whether it's for a book in the library catalog, or for a journal article in one of the databases, has been assigned one or more subject headings. Even if you don't know the best subject headings when you start searching, they will come up as you find relevant books and articles from your keyword searches. The subject headings are usually hyperlinked, so you can click to them find the other articles or books where that subject was assigned.very record, whether it's for a book in the library catalog, or for a journal article in one of the databases, has been assigned one or more subject headings. Even if you don't know the best subject headings when you start searching, they will come up as you find relevant books and articles from your keyword searches. The subject headings are usually hyperlinked, so you can click to them find the other articles or books where that subject was assigned.

An abstract is a brief summary of the article: what the authors did and what they found out. It also serves as marketing, because it's a chance for the authors to tell you why you should read it. Abstracts also provide additional keywords and phrases to include in your searching, as noted here in black (the red indicates phrasing that identifies this as a research article as opposed to a review article).


When you find a relevant article, another way to find additional, potentially helpful articles is to look at what articles were cited in the paper. and what articles have cited that paper since it was published. These may appear in the database as Cited Articles or Bibliography, and Citing Articles or Times Cited.
When you find a good article, you can try the database's "Related Records" feature to find articles that may be similar to your article. The related articles are often based on common subjects, descriptors or keywords assigned to the articles, but Web of Science uses common cited references, retrieving papers whose authors cited the same papers cited in your article.