Advanced Search Techniques

Ensure that you use the best keywords in your search by checking the database

  • Subject Headings

To narrow your results, i.e., to get fewer results, but ones which are more focused and relevant to your specific topic, try:

  • Boolean AND, NOT
  • Field Searching
  • Limiters
  • Nesting
  • Phrase Searching
  • Proximity Searching

If you are not getting enough results, you may want to broaden your search by trying:

  • Boolean OR
  • Truncation / Wildcards

Boolean searching, i.e. using Boolean Operators in between your search words, is the single most effective 'advanced' search technique you can use to improve your search results, making them more relevant and precise.

Boolean operators that help you narrow your results:

      • Boolean AND
      • electricity costs AND solar power : Instructs the database to only bring back results that contain BOTH search terms so you will only see articles that talk about both electricity costs and solar power.
      • Boolean NOT
      • penguins NOT hockey : Instructs the database to NOT bring back any results that contain a specific search term so you can remove all the articles about the hockey team from your list of results.

Boolean operators that help you broaden your results:

      • Boolean OR
      • adolescents or teens : Instructs the database to list results that contain either articles about adolescents OR articles about teens so you get all of the articles about the concept no matter which term was used to describe it.

When you choose Author from a pull down list and type in the Author's Name that is Field Searching. Most databases give you the option to search for your term(s) in one of a database's fields. The choice of fields can often be found as a pull-down list next to the search box.  Choosing which field to search and a particular term can greatly focus your search.

The exact fields available will vary by database.  However, most will allow you to limit your search to results where your keywords were in a document's abstract, its title, or allow you to specify that you want results where your search term was an author's name or perhaps in the title of a publication.

Most databases also offer the option to specify which field(s) to search in by adding Field Codes to your search query (i.e., by typing them in by hand).  These specific codes, and exactly how you have to type them into your search for it to work properly, will of course vary by database. This way of doing field searching was the norm in the early days of databases, and some searchers still prefer it.

Since many databases by default search the entire text of the documents they contain, focusing your search to the words having to have been found in the title, keywords (supplied by either the database or the author)  or abstract is one of the best and easiest ways to make sure that your  search results are articles that are truly focused on your topic - as opposed to getting articles that contain your search words in random places in the text or perhaps somewhere in the list of references, as can often happen.

Article and Book databases allow their users to limit their searches in various ways, both before and after the search query has been run.  These choices, and how you pick, them will vary by database, but will tend to be found close to the search box.  In many case, post-searching limiters will be found to one side (most often the left) of the list of search results.

The most common limiters that are available include:

Publication Date
Journal Title
Peer Reviewed
Full Text
Source Type
Document Type

Many, though not all, databases support using parentheses in search queries.  This technique is also known as nesting.

Nesting is when you surround parts of your search query with parentheses. This is done to tell the database's search engine which part of your search to perform first.

  • e.g.: (human AND rights) AND NGOs

You can also list synonyms within parentheses, and combine these in a search with other concepts. This is done by using the Boolean OR inside parentheses that contain synonyms.

  • e.g.: (therapy OR treatments) AND schizophrenia

This is the most precise search technique of all.  When you enclose multiple words with double quote marks (") on either side, you are telling the search engine that you want only results with those words right next to each other, in that exact order.

This is a good technique to use when you are searching for a 'term of art' (i.e., a term, in this case, one containing multiple words, that has a specialized meaning in a particular field or profession).  In other words, everyone when communicating about that topic uses that exact phrase. 

Another example of when using a phrase search would be useful is when you are seeking something like a book or movie title, or someone's name.


  • "Return on investment"
  • "Peer tutoring"
  • "Myocardial infarction"
  • "Shakespeare in Love"
  • "Of Mice and Men"
  • "Twin Peaks"
  • "President Lincoln"
  • "Steve Jobs"

Proximity searching allows you to search for two words that occur in the document within a certain number of words from each other. To do this, you usually type a proximity operator (will vary by database) as well as a number, between two search terms.

e.g. (from Ebsco databases):

(tax OR tariff) N5 reform
oil W3 (disaster OR clean-up OR contamination)
(baseball OR football OR basketball) N5 (teams OR players)

The databases we have that allow proximity searching include:

Subject headings are an example of a Controlled Vocabulary. They are, in effect, the virtual "file folder labels" that a database uses to organize its files. So, if you are having trouble finding results in your topic area, it may help to see how the database you are using 'files' its information. In other words, you may have a search term or even a few about your topic, but the database may use a completely different term to file the information you are seeking.  If that is the case, it would be more efficient to use the database's subject term while searching there.

Most databases have a link to their Controlled Vocabulary (also called: Subject Headings, Thesaurus, Subject Terms, Headings, Index Terms, MeSH), near or at the top of the search page. There, you can type in your search word, then see if the database has a preferred term for your topic that you can use when searching.

List of subject headings from an Ebsco database:

Truncation and Wildcards are great ways to expand your search, as they broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.

It is especially useful when you are researching a topic where there are alternate spellings (such as variations between American and British spellings), or where your topic makes use of words where there can be both singular and plural endings, or word variations where there can be multiple forms.

To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol (which will vary by database, though many tend to use an asterisk (*)) at the end. The search engine will then search for any variant form that can be made from that root word.  Take care exactly what root you use as your search term, in case there might be wildly unrelated words that can be made from it which have nothing to do with your topic.

e.g.: child* will bring back results including:  child, childs, children, childrens, childhood

Wildcards are when you replace a letter in your search term with the database's wildcard symbol. This is useful for asking the search engine to find spelling variants.

e.g.: colo?r will bring back results containing either the word color or colour as results.