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Chris Neuhaus
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Basic Search Tips

Person typing on a laptopUnlike Google, library databases can't understand an entire sentence. So you'll need to break your topic down into the most important ideas - the KEYWORDS.

Example Topic: How prevalent is PTSD among refugee populations? 

The specifics of your topic will matter when selecting sources, but for searching you only need the most essential components.

Keywords: PTSD, refugees How prevalent is PTSD among refugee populations?

Most words have synonyms that mean the same, or very similar, things. For each keyword in your topic, try to come up with at least one synonym. Not all keywords will have synonyms, but many do!


Keyword: PTSD     Synonym: "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder"


Keep an Eye Out

Sometimes scholars use terms that you might not be familiar with, or which might mean something very specific within the discipline. While searching, look for unfamiliar terms or words that show up a lot. Try searching for those and see if you find more relevant sources.

Onesearch with green arrow pointing to the refine my results sectionMost library databases have search tools built in. Try some of these:

  • Subject: Think of subjects as official hashtags. Use them to find sources about that subject.
  • Date Range: Limit your search to sources published between specific years.
  • Peer Reviewed: Limit your search to scholarly journal articles.
  • Full Text: Make sure all of the results are available to read in full.

Look on the left and right of your search results, or for an "advanced search" page to find these tools - and more!

Person standing in front of a board with academic documents

You can evaluate any source using the 5 W's:

  • Who: ...wrote it? Are they an expert?
  • What: the purpose of this resource?
  • Where: ...was this information published? ...does the information come from?
  • When: ...was this published or last updated?
  • Why: this resource useful? this resource better than other ones?

Advanced Search Tips

Venn diagram with the keyword refugees on in the left circle, the Boolean operator AND in the middle, and the keyword PTSD  in the right circle

Use the operator AND to find only sources that mention both keywords.

refugees AND PTSD

This search will bring back fewer results than searching either keyword on its own.

Venn diagram with the keyword PTSD on in the left circle, the Boolean operator OR in the middle, and the phrase “mental health” in the right circle

Use the OR operator to expand your search with additional keywords.

PTSD OR "mental health"

This will find sources that include either word, so you'll see more results than by searching for just one keyword.

search in a database for refugees AND (PTSD OR "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder")

Use the “QUOTES” strategy to search for several words in a phrase.

"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder"

This will bring back results that only use that exact phrase.