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EBIO 1250 Introduction to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Research: Search Strategies

Creating Keywords

The first step in developing a search strategy is to create a research topic.  Often, it's helpful to express this as a question.  Once you have your topic or question, break it down into important concepts. When identifying concepts, nouns and noun phrases often work best.

What effect do dogs have on the academic performance of college students?

In this example, "dogs," "academic performance," and "college students" are three concepts that can be used to create keywords.

Next, try to think of at least one alternate term for each of your concepts.  These alternate terms could be synonyms, broader terms, or narrower terms.

Dogs                         Academic Performance                   College Students

Canines                                                Grades                                                                                            University Students

Puppies                                                Learning                                                                                          Undergraduates

Beagles                                                Education                                                                                        Juniors

Lapdogs                                               Success                                                                                           Students                 


If you need some help brainstorming keywords, Power Thesaurus is a great resource.


Boolean Operators

Boolean operators are words (AND, OR, NOT) that can be used in database searching to combine or exclude terms for either wider or more focused results.

AND - Use AND to have the database return results that only include both of the terms that you specify.

Apples AND Oranges will only return results that have both the words apples and oranges in them.

OR - Use OR to have the database return results with either or both of the terms that you specify.

Apples OR Oranges will return results with only the word apples (but not oranges), results with only the word oranges (but not apples), and results with both the words apples and oranges.

NOT - Using NOT will exclude all instances of that word from your search results. 

Apples NOT Oranges will return all results with apples, unless they include the word oranges.  Use NOT very sparingly, since it will often exclude relevant search results.

Database Searching

When you use a library database, you'll often have the option of using more than one search box for a single search (click on "Advanced Search" if this doesn't seem to be the case).  This facilitates the use of Boolean operators to improve your search results. 


Use a separate box for each concept, connecting the words with the Boolean operator OR to indicate that you'll accept results with at least one of those terms. Then make sure that the dropdown menu is set to AND to make sure that you have at least one term from each box.

This search is telling the database that any results it returns must include either of the terms dogs or canines, either of the terms grades or academic performance, and either of the terms college students or undergraduates. An item in the database must meet all three of these criteria in order to be included in the results.


Note:  Use quotation marks for terms that are more than one word to tell the database that the words must appear as an exact phrase (i.e. next to each other in the same order indicated), as in "academic performance" and "college students" in the above example.


Databases can sometimes return hundreds or thousands of results. Be sure to look at the filters (normally on the left side of the page) to find ways to narrow the results and save time.  Common filters include date, source type (newspapers, academic journals, etc.), and subject area.

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