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Search Strategies: Database Searching


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.


Keyword and Subject Searches

Keywords are any words that appear in the text. Keyword searching is typically used for internet search engines.

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

Subjects are descriptors for a piece of information that accurately represent the content. Performing a subject search is the most precise way to search in a database.

  • Using subjects will retrieve fewer results than keywords, but they are potentially more relevant. 
  • You do not need to search for synonyms for the subject term.
  • Subject terms come from a restricted list. 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.


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.

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.