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Literature Reviews: Searching Tips

This guide is designed to offer guidance for completing a literature review, and will link you to resources, techniques, and advanced approaches to conducting and writing a literature review.

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. 

Keep in mind that not all databases and search engines interpret searches in the same way.  It's a good habit to review the database Help pages before you search so you know what searching techniques to use.

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: “What is the effect of television violence on children?”

2. Generate keyword search terms by identifying the main ideas or concepts within that topic sentence:  “What is the effect of television violence on children?” = Effect, Television, Violence, or Television violence and Children

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

  • Television; media, TV,
  • Violence; aggression,
  • Effect; influence,
  • Children; toddlers, youngsters, boys, girls

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 mathematics and curriculum:

  • AND – Narrows and focuses the search results. The search mathematics and curriculum will bring only results where both the terms mathematics and curriculum are present.
  • OR – Broadens the search results. Using or will bring results where the term mathematics is present, or results where curriculum is present, or results where both terms are present. Or is useful if you have more than one way to refer to a concept -- Example: elementary or primary.
  • NOT Excludes anything where the term after the NOT is present.

Phrase Searching

If you are searching for a phrase, keep in mind that not all databases will search multiple words automatically as a phrase.  Check the database Help pages to be sure how that database handles multiple works.

  • Some assume that words typed next to each other should be searched as phrases.
  • Others automatically put a Boolean AND between your search terms, requiring that all the words be present, but not necessarily adjacent to each other.
  • Some databases (and Google) use " " around multiple words to designate a phrase search.  For example:  "road rage" 

Truncation

Using truncation symbols allows you to expand your results by including various endings for a search term.  Most databases will designate a non-alphabetical symbol -- like  ! , *, or ? -- as a truncation symbol; check the database Help screens to find out the specific symbol.  Using the truncation symbol at the end of the root word will bring back results that include any ending of that root word.  For example, if the truncation symbol was a ? , then:

  • child? = child, child's, children, childish, childlike, childhood
  • theat? = theater, theatre, theaters, theatrical

Wildcards

Similar to truncation, wildcard symbols are used to substitute a designated symbol for one letter of a word.  Check the database Help screens to find out the specific symbol.  Wildcards are useful if a word is spelled in different ways, but still has the same meaning.  For example:

  • wom!n = woman, women
  • colo?r = color, colour