1. Key words and smart searching


Establishing the keywords that will enable you to identify texts and articles that are of most relevance to your research is crucial. 

A systematic approach is best. Have you:

  • brainstormed all of the terms which you think are relevant?

  • thought of all possible synonyms, alternative and related key words and concepts?

  • used subject dictionaries and encyclopedias to extend your list?

Source: Pixabay

Keywords really are the key! But generating a good list of relevant keywords may require some thought; creating lists of synonyms is one way of approaching this.

Applying controlled vocabulary to a subject provides a consistent method of finding information, and allows you to broaden or narrow your focus.

There are two main kinds of controlled vocabulary used in databases - subject headings and thesaurus terms.

What are subject headings?

Subject headings describe the main focus of the content of a publication, and provide terms which bring together different ways of defining a subject.

How can a thesaurus help?

Thesauri list words grouped together according to similarity of meaning.

Thesauri also list equivalent terms and narrower, broader and related terms.


Compiling a list of relevant key words is a crucial step; but there are ways to use those terms when searching a database to ensure that you get the best possible results.

One of the most powerful techniques when searching a database is Truncation. It works like this: simply add an asterisk (*) to the root of a word. 

So for example searching a database by entering the term optic* in the search box will find results that include the words:

optic, optics, optician, optical, etc.


When searching databases remember the small but important differences between British English and American English - you don't want to miss things if contributors to your subject are based across the Atlantic or there are high-profile specialist journals published in America. Using Wildcards gets over this problem.

  • characteri?ation will find characterisation and characterization: note the - this is a Wildcard search

  • colo$r will find color and colour: note the - this is also a Wildcard search

However, wildcards do not work on all databases.


Phrase searching is a powerful technique that can be used with almost all databases and library catalogues.

Phrase searching works by using "quotation marks"

If you search a database using "energy conservation" then it will retrieve results that only include that exact phrase - it could occur in the title, or, if you are using a full-text database, the phrase could occur somewhere in the main text of the article.


Use Boolean Operators to combine your search terms:

  • Using AND will narrow your search

  • Using OR will broaden your search

  • Using NOT will narrow your search

The three main Boolean Operators can be presented visually:

In order to avoid missing important references when searching databases use the  techniques we've outlined here - either singly or in combination.

Get in touch with the T&LS Team if you need help mastering any of these search techniques:  Contact the T&LS Team