S&S » Searching » Searching techniques

Searching techniques

Finding good search terms

The first thing you have to do is to find good search terms. Use the research question as a starting point and identify key terms, including their synonyms.

Consider the following:

  • Use subject-related terminology. Many databases have a built-in thesaurus that includes recognized terms and their associated synonyms.
  • Note that terms that are useful in one database may be less useful in another.
  • Language: Most international databases require that you search in English. Even though Oria provides search-results in both Norwegian and English, you might miss many relevant documents if you only choose Norwegian search terms. English terms can be found in textbooks, articles and dictionaries. Read summaries and look for the author’s own terminology.
  • Be creative: Find as many synonyms as possible for the content of the terms you are interested in.
  • Make a chart and designate a column for every term that makes up your research question, and add synonyms for each term in its respective column.
  • Do not use too many different elements in a search, two or three is usually enough.

Free text searching

Free text searching, or searching for words in the textbook, is the most common approach to begin with. In this case, you search for words in the title or the summary, and look for subject terms (taggs? – emneord) and keywords. Since a phenomenon can often be described with different terms, it is important to include synonyms for each term in your searching.

Searching for subject headings 

To search for subject headings means to search through the subject-related word lists in the database. In such a case, you search for standardized subject terms that describe the content of a document. An advantage with this method of searching is that the database automatically includes synonyms in the search.

Combine keywords

Once you have found all relevant keywords, you have to think about how they should be combined. In most databases, you can combine keywords in three different ways: with AND, OR, NOT. This is called searching with boolske operators.

After you have clearly identified your research problem and found out the relevant subject terms that you will base your search on, you should think about how to combine these search terms. Most databases allow you to combine search terms in various ways by means of the Boolean operators AND, OR and NOT.

Combining query terms using AND

When you combine your query terms by using AND, the resulting hits will contain documents that deal with both terms. The AND operator aims at focusing the search and narrowing down the number of hits.

When you search for decubitus AND prevention, the resulting hits will contain only documents that deal with both decubitus and prevention as shown in the diagram below.

AND eng

Combining query terms using OR

When you choose to join two query terms with the OR operator, you get a search result that contain either one of the terms, or both. Combining search terms with OR thus generates an extended search result with a larger number of hits. The OR operator is usually employed to cover alternatives or synonyms of the query term. For example, the search for decubitus OR bedsore, will give a hit that contains either decubitus or bedsore, or decubitus and bedsore as shown in the diagram below.

OR eng

Combining query terms using NOT

When you combine your query terms with the operator NOT, your search result will consist of only one of the terms, and the other term will be eliminated from the search. Since the use of NOT eliminates a large number of hits, it should be used with caution. For example, when you search for decubitus NOT prevention, your search result will contains only instances of decubitus, and all documents that deal with prevention will be filtered out from the search.

NOT eng

Using a search table

The table below has three columns, one for each of the three components of the research question. First, the synonymous keywords in each column are combined with OR, then, all the matches in the three columns are combined with AND.

This procedure can be applied to the vast majority of projects.

Research question: “Is it profitable for businesses to market themselves as sustainable?”

By truncation, you search for the trunk of a word in order to include both singular and plural forms of a word and also its different variants. Truncation increases the number of hits. As a rule, truncation is marked by an asterisk (*). This technique must be used with caution, if you truncate too early in the word, you might get very long hit lists with outdated literature. For example, if you are looking up Angels and truncate it to Ang* in order to also include its singular form, you will end up with a lengthy list that also includes Anglo-saxon, Anguish, etc.\

Limiting the search

Use the ability to limit/narrow a long hit list. In most databases it is possible to narrow down based on publishing year, language, larger subject areas and the type of the document. Keep in mind that limiting the search results might cause you to miss some important information.

  • For Example: If you are going to write a paper on political and religious aspects of the reformation period in Norway, it can be done in the following way: Search for “Reformation”, then choose to limit the search results to articles within history and religion. By doing this you will exclude subjects that are less relevant to your topic. Then, choose to limit the results based on country: Norway. There is also the option of narrowing down the results by choosing a language, for example English or Norwegian. In this way, you will end up with way fewer articles but still a handful of relevant information.


Last updated: December 13, 2017

Back to top