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Course & Subject Guides

Writing in the Biological Sciences - Oakland Campus

This guide is designed primarily for students who are relatively new to reading, writing for, and finding literature in the biological sciences.

Reviewing Your Search Results

In doing research, it's normal not to find everything you need immediately in your first search. Reviewing your search results can give you clues on how to refine and revise your searches.

Looking at the result set:

  • are there recurring authors who might be good candidates for an author search?
  • are there lots of patents in the results when you want to focus on journal articles?
  • are there themes or characteristics that could narrow the results, such as geography, ecosystem, species, biological pathway, or disease?

Viewing the full records of some of the more relevant items in your result set:

  • look at titles and abstracts to identify new keywords to search
  • are there any particularly pertinent assigned subject headings that could be used in a field search?
  • does the article record link to other cited, citing, or related articles?

Focusing Your Search Results

If your search returns too many answers, try some of these techniques:

- Add more concepts or subject terms using AND to combine them:

               biodiversity    and    wetlands    and   coastal

- Search for terms in a specific field:

           wetlands in title            biodiversity in major concepts

-  Limit your search results by:

        language,    publication date,    document type,    etc.

          (Options vary from database to database.)

It's generally preferable to refine your search by adding in more concepts or limitations that should apply to all your results, if possible, rather than excluding terms by using NOT.

Broadening Your Search Results

If your search doesn't return enough relevant answers, try some of these techniques:

- Add synonyms or related terms using OR to combine them:

       amphibians   or    frogs    or    salamanders

- Use truncation (symbols vary from database to database):

          gene*     instead  of    genes

- Use the thesaurus, if the database has one, to identify other related terms or broader terms to search.

- Search on a relevant subject heading or alternate subject terms that you've located in a record in your search results.

- Remove any unnecessary limits you've set.

- Use the "Find related" or "Find similar" search button if the database has one.

Review Articles

Review articles can help you start your research. Because they provide an overview or summary of significant research in a particular subject area, they are useful as introductions to a new area or as updates to a more familiar one.

Review articles are not part of the primary literature, because they do not report original research. They can lead you to reports in the primary literature, however.

Use review articles to:

  • get a broader picture of research questions and results in the field
  • identify key concepts and terminology for your database searches
  • identify key authors working in the field
  • find references to relevant articles cited in the review

Searching for review articles is done in various ways, depending on the database:

  • search the term review as a keyword in a "document type" field
  • refine your results after a search by filtering by review as a document type
  • search for the keyword review

Author Searching

If you know the name of an active or preeminent researcher in your area of interest, try searching for articles by that author.

Be alert to the form of the name you search:

  • must the last name be entered first?
  • full first name or initials only?
  • with or without middle initial, or both?
  • how are hyphenated names handled?
  • is punctuation in a name included?

Databases do not all use the same format for displaying and searching author names, so look for examples or search tips in your database.

Authors do not always use the same form of their name. For example, they may not always use a middle initial, so you may need to search for more than one form of their name.

Of course, different authors may have the same set of initials or even name, so you may need to refine your search using subject terms or institution name.

ORCID numbers are unique identifiers for authors. If an author has registered with ORCID and the database includes ORCID numbers in its records, you can search and use ORCID numbers to identify articles by a particular author.

Cited and Citing References

Following links between articles that cite each other can be a useful way of expanding your awareness of relevant articles. An article citing another one implies a subject connection between the two.

Many databases make it easy to identify these connections by including links in the full record for an article:

  • Cited articles - a list of the "footnotes"  or references in the article. This list identifies articles published earlier that were read and used by the authors of this article.
  • Citing articles - a list of articles that refer back to or cite this article. This list identifies newer articles written on a related topic that used and referred to this article. 
  • Related articles - usually a list of articles that cite at least one reference in common with this article. If two articles cite a third article in common, it implies a subject connection between the two articles.


The Web of Science database was designed specifically to enable citation searching to find these connections. Choose Cited Reference search after connecting to the database. You can then search terms as a Cited Author, Cited Work (cited article), or Cited Year.