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Course & Subject Guides

Writing in Neuroscience - Oakland Campus

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

Searching Techniques

Article databases, online library catalogs, and many popular search engines share several general searching techniques. Once you master these common searching techniques, you will save yourself time and find more relevant results.

Selecting Keywords

The search terms or keywords you use to search are what determine the results you get. Here's a good exercise to help you generate keywords:

1. Express your topic in a topic sentence:  "How does the body repair nerve damage to the central nervous system?"

2. Generate keyword search terms by identifying the main ideas or concepts within the topic sentence: "How does the body repair nerve damage to the central nervous system?"  --> how, repair, damage, nerve, central nervous system

3. Expand your search terms by brainstorming related terms or synonyms that describe your main ideas:

  • How; mechanism, pathway
  • Repair; regenerate, regeneration
  • Damage; injury
  • Nerve; neuron
  • Central nervous system; CNS

Combining Search Terms

You can create complex search strategies by combining keywords using the linking words AND, OR and NOT. For example, if your search terms are neurotransmitter and serotonin:

  • AND - Narrows and focuses the search results. The search neurotransmitter and serotonin finds only results containing both the terms neurotransmitter and serotonin.
  • OR - Broadens the search results. Searching neurotransmitter or serotonin will find results containing the term neurotransmitter or the term serotonin or both terms in the same result.
  • NOT - Excludes any result containing the term listed after the not.  The search neurotransmitter not serotonin will find results containing the term neurotransmitter but not containing the term serotonin. Use not cautiously since it excludes all mentions of the term in every context.

Field Searching

In some databases you can restrict searching your terms to specific sections or fields in a database record, for example the article title or author name.

You can tailor your search by combining information from different parts of the record, like combining an author name with a subject term, or focus your search by restricting terms to an article title or abstract.

This is frequently done by using a pull-down menu to select the appropriate field for each search term.


Searching the root of a word without specifying a particular ending is one way to find variations on a word that relate to the same core concept without searching each word separately.

Some databases automatically search terms for singular, plural, and various other endings.

Some databases use a truncation symbol to indicate that any ending is acceptable after exactly matching the letters entered.

  • signal*   will find    signal, signals, signaling, signalling, signaled, signalled                                               
  • neuro*    will find    neuron, neurons, neuronal, neuroscience, neuroanatomy, etc.                     but not     neural, neuralgia                                                   

The actual symbol used will vary among databases. The asterisk (*) is most common, but some use a ? or other symbol, so check your database.

Phrase Searching

Searching for exact phrases instead of individual words can focus your search so that more results are directly relevant to your topic. Different databases and search engines accomplish this in different ways. Two common ones are:

  • Quotation marks - Some databases treat words enclosed within quotation marks as phrases. Searching "glutamate receptor regulation" will find only results containing those three words next to each other in that order.
  • Default setting - In some databases, words typed next to each other are automatically searched as an exact phrase. Searching glutamate receptor regulation will only find results containing that exact phrase.

Remember: Exact phrase searches can focus your results, but they can also miss some relevant results. Searching the phrase "glutamate receptor regulation" will not find regulation of glutamate receptors or regulating glutamate receptors, both of which are relevant.