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Journal Article Search Strategies

Understanding and Using Search Strategies

Searching any database can be more effective by understanding and using a few basic search strategies. Databases vary in the way you have to type in these strategies, so use the database help screens or ask a reference librarian.

If you want to create a very narrow search, familiarize yourself with the concepts below. Each database has a help section also, so you may prefer to go to the database, or one of the guides at left, for help with narrow searching.

Using Article Quick Search

Article Quick Search is the name of the search engine for the library's journal content. It includes both titles the library owns and some it does not. If the library does not have access to an article, request it through Interlibrary Loan. Be sure first that the library does not own the title!

What is Peer Review? (vr)

If you cannot access the above video, you can watch it here

Keyword Searching

Keyword and Phrase Searching

This is a general type of  Search. In a keyword search the database generates a list of articles that can have the term or phrase anywhere in the record for that article ... in the title, author, abstract or even in their subject headings. The record is the listing in the catalog of a particular item.

PRO: Sometimes a concept may be a narrower aspect of a broad subject heading (text comprehension is a specific aspect of reading). Searching "text comprehension" as a keyword phrase saves you the time of wading through all the articles on "reading" that don't deal with text comprehension.
CON: Keyword searching usually retrieves a lot of articles but not all of them will use the keyword in the context you want. For example, a keyword search using "reading" might also get you articles on business management by an author named George Reading.

When in doubt, try both kinds of searches, subject and keyword! It only takes a couple of seconds to try
both to see which gathers the best results for your particular topic!

Subject Vs. Keyword Searching

Subject Searching

When an article is indexed in a database, it is given subject headings that describe what information is covered. Subject headings are limited to a set of terms developed by the company that produces the database. To know what terms are "subject" headings, check to see if the database provide a Thesaurus or a List of Subjects.

PRO: Authors use different terms when writing about the same concept (cars, automobiles, motor vehicles, etc.). Rather than thinking of every possible synonym, find and use the subject heading for that concept to retrieve all relevant articles, regardless of the terms authors may use.
CON: There may not be a subject heading for your concept or it may be difficult to find one that exactly fits your concept.

Boolean Operators

Boolean Operators

The search engine of online journal indexes are based on a system of combining terms using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to control the results of your search. To use two or more Boolean operators, you need to know how to use a technique called nesting.


Counterintuitive Alert

  • Use AND to narrow a search since both terms must be present in the articles you retrieve:
dogs AND cats

In the diagram below, The blue area represents only those articles that have both cats and dogs present.

  • Use OR to expand a search. Your search will retrieve articles with either of the terms. OR is most often used to combine synonyms or like terms.

memory OR recall


The turquoise area represents articles that have either or both terms present.
  • Use NOT to exclude a term. Articles with the first term will be retrieved. Articles with the second term will not.

cats  NOT dogs


The pink area represents those articles that have the term dogs but not the term cats.

diagram showing boolean terms


Nesting involves using parentheses so the search engine will perform the Boolean operations in the sequence you intend. This technique allows you to build a complex search using two or more operators (and, or, not, near, with)


Another Example

Additional Boolean Graphic


diagram showing boolean terms six circles in 3 groups of 2 overlapping circles labelled AND OR and NOT peanut butter and jelly overlap is shaded peanut butter or jelly both circles entirely shaded peanut butter not jelly overlap and cirlce on right not shaded

graphic courtesy of Slippery Rock University




Truncation allows you to search for a root form of a word and pick up all variations of that term. Truncating broadens your search and ensure that you retrieve all items containing some form of that word.

teen* will retrieve articles with the terms

  • teen
  • teens
  • teenager
  • teenagers

A word of warning! Truncating a word too short can retrieve too many unwanted terms.

If you want all forms of the term culture, and you type cul*, your articles will contain terms that you don't want:

  • cults
  • cultivate
  • culinary
  • culminate
  • culotte
  • culprit

The best way to truncate culture is cultur*.