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Database Searching: Overview

Database Searching Is Different than Googling

Google is good at ignoring words that don't relate to your topic (like "the," "a," "why," etc.). Databases usually take your search literally, so only search for the main ideas for your topic.

  • Example Google search: "why does the earth spin" 
  • Example database search: "earth rotation"

Don't assume a database ranks relevant results like Google. In databases, refine your searches to have a manageable number of results.

Choosing Search Terms

Choose words that would appear in your desired result. For academic research, use terminology that would be used by scholars in that discipline.

To discover search terms, try a glossary. For example, a Google search for "anthropology glossary" gives several good results. You could also look for terms in a textbook or other background information, in a disciplinary database's subjects list, or by talking to your professor.


Keywords are any words that appear in the text.

  • Keywords retrieve many results, some of which will be irrelevant.
  • You must search for alternate terms or synonyms.
  • They are best used for jargon, proper names, or when there is no appropriate subject term.


Subjects are terms assigned to a source that accurately match the overall content. 

  • Using subjects will retrieve fewer results than keywords, but they are potentially more relevant. 
  • You do not need to search for synonyms.
  • Subject terms come from a list so you need to know the specific subject terms used by that particular database.

To discover subject terms, browse for subjects in the database that match your topic. Look for a button or link that says Subjects, Index, or Thesaurus (check the Help screens). Alternatively, perform a keyword search, and in your results, look at the Subject or Descriptor field to note the terms used.

The subject index is linked from the tap navigation on a database. Subjects also appear in the individual records.

Combining Terms


Use quotation marks around a phrase for results that only have those words in that order. Alternatively, look for a drop down menu that designates the search box to be "exact."


These Boolean operators connect your search words together to either narrow or expand your list of results.

  • AND will retrieve results that use BOTH terms, making your results fewer.
  • OR will retrieve results that use EITHER term, making your results bigger.
  • NOT will retrieve results that use the first term but not the second, making your results smaller.
  • The order in which the database reads these operators is first NOT, then AND, finally OR.



Advanced Database Searching


Truncation broadens your search results to include various word endings and spellings.

  • To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol * at the end.
  • Examples:
    child* = child, childs, children, childrens, childhood
    genetic* = genetic, genetics, genetically
  • Truncation symbols may vary by database. Check the database's Help screen.


Wildcards substitute a symbol for one letter of a word.

  • This is useful if a word is spelled in different ways, but still has the same meaning.
  • Examples: wom!n = woman, women
    colo?r = color, colour

Tips for Database Searching

Too many results​

  • Narrow your topic by time, geography, or by focusing on a facet of your topic.
  • Use more specific terminology.
  • Use a subject search and combine that with other keywords that focus your topic.

Too few results

  • Eliminate limiters or filters.
  • Rethink any keywords that are too specific or use a subject search instead.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words.
  • Consider using another database that may be more appropriate to your topic.

Helpful Resources

Find the Full Text

Some results may only be citations, but you can easily get full text.

  • Click on the link to "Check other SMU options."
  • You will be redirected to a Library Search screen that either connects you to another database that has full text or prompts you to request the article from another institution. Be sure to sign in to Library Search in order to make your request.