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STEM - General Research Guide: Search Strategies

Search Strategies

Searching is more than just throwing in a few words in a search engine or database. You can apply strategies to improve the efficiency and quality of your searches and results:

  1. Before you begin your search.
  2. Once you complete a search and want to refine or narrow your results.
  3. When you find a good article and want to find more like it.

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.

Sea spray aerosols

marine aerosols, atmospheric aerosols, clouds, water vapor, sea salt aerosols, aerosols, ice nucleating particles


mass spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, spectrometry, ATOFMS, spectra, x-ray spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy


biological, biologic, biogenic, bacteria, viruses, proteins, microbes, microbial, microbiomes, enzymes, fatty acids, saccharides, polysaccharides

Use "and" and "or" to connect your search terms, to expand or narrow your search results. These may be called Boolean operators, and can be combined to make a more effective search.

Example:  (marine OR sea spray) AND (aerosols) AND (organic OR bacteria OR viruses) AND (spectroscopy OR spectra)

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

aerosols AND spectroscopy

aerosols AND organic

Retrieves results that include all/both words or phrases

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


viruses OR bacteria

marine OR sea spray

Retrieves results that include at least one of your words or phrases, but not necessarily all of them

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

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.

If you truncate nano* or micro*, you may need to be more specific if you get to many results. For example, try nanoparticles if that makese sense for your search.

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 the following. You may get an option to do a second search within the results

  • publication date or range
  • document type (books, dissertations, articles, etc)
  • language, peer-reviewed (scholarly) articles only,
  • full-text availability. 

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.

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.