Database Searching

The search process

There are seven basic steps in the search process:

  1. Identifying the key words and phrases that reflect the key concepts of your research topic.
  2. Formatting these key words and phrases using techniques such as phrase searching and truncation that make the most of them.
  3. Turning these key words and phrases into effective searches using a few easy to master techniques.
  4. Using the filters and limits in databases to optimise your searches.
  5. Reviewing/evaluating your search results.
  6. Making the most of your search results – by using the information in database records and article reference lists to find other resources.
  7. Search again – Searching is not a linear process. And it is not enough to do just one search. You will need separate searches for each aspect of your topic. You will also need to repeat your searches in multiple databases. As you continue to search and read the literature related to your topic, you will find that you need to modify your searches to include the other keywords you come across, or other aspects of the topic you need to investigate.

Step 1 - Identifying the words to search for

Search engines will search for exactly what you type into them, including words like "the". You need to make sure you're only using the words that represent your key concepts.


1. Start by writing out your research question. For example:

What are the interpersonal skills accounting graduates need to be job ready in Australia?


2. Circle any limits in the question. Some examples of these are: geographical locations, periods in history, demographic groups, specific types of clinical tests, or the date range for the literature you are searching. These will help you to refine your search. Some of these limits will be used as keywords. Some will be filters in a database. Example:

What are the interpersonal skills accounting graduates need to be job ready in Australia?


3. Next Highlight the words and phrases that represent the key concepts you are searching for information on, e.g.

What are the interpersonal skills accounting graduates need to be job ready in Australia?


4. Arrange your keywords into a table or mind map and brainstorm alternatives including:

  • synonyms (words that mean exactly or nearly the same),
  • broader terms (the main subject area that your keywords belong in) and
  • narrower terms (often specific examples of the concept).

Finding alternative terms for your keywords is important because authors often use different words to mean the same thing, e.g. one article might say university, and another might say college. Including alternative terms in your search means that you won't miss useful results.

You won't start with a full table or mind map. Just add what you can and you will find more words to add as you work on your scoping searches.

Below is an example of a table for the question we analysed above.

Keywords from your search question

(Related terms)

Broader terms

Narrower terms

interpersonal skills

  • personal skills
  • people skills
  • soft skills
  • social intelligence
  • emotional intelligence
  • team work
  • self-motivation
  • reliability
  • flexibility
  • leadership


  • accountant
  • accountancy
  • financial services
  • book-keeper
  • public accountant
  • tax accountant


  • university students


job ready

  • work ready
  • employable


Step 2 - Formatting the words for searching

After you identify the key concepts you need to find information on, you can use these techniques to maximise the potential of each of the words and phrases:


"Phrase searching"

Sometimes an idea is represented by a group of two or more words. In searching this is referred to as a phrase. To search for a phrase, use double quotation marks around the words. This tells the database to search for occurrences of this specific group of words in exactly this order.
Example: "interpersonal skills"


Truncation *

When there are various forms of a word, you can cut it back to the root word and add a truncation symbol. This creates a search for all the variations without having to type each one in separately. Truncation symbols vary slightly between databases, so use the 'Help' or 'Search Tips' options to check which one you need.
Example: account* will search for account, accountant, accounting, ...


Wildcards ?

There may be variations in the spelling of words, e.g. British English and American English have different spellings for some words. If you search with only one spelling, you will miss the relevant results with the alternate spelling. A wildcard character is a symbol that can be used to replace a letter within a word. Wildcard symbols vary slightly between databases, so use the 'Help' or 'Search Tips' options to check which one you need.
Example: organi?ation will search for both organisation and organization.


Plural terms

Check how the database you are using searches for single/plural versions of keywords - this can have a huge impact on your results, as some databases will automatically search for the plural version of a singular term, but not the reverse (this information is usually included under 'Help' or 'Search Tips').

Step 3 - Turning the words into searches

Keywords can be formatted and combined into searches using specific words and symbols. You can use these techniques to maximise the effectiveness of your searches and get better quality results.



AND is used to combine words for different concepts. It tells the database to find results where all the of the words appear. It narrows your search.
Example: "interpersonal skills" AND accountants



OR is used to add synonyms or similar concepts to the search. It tells the database to find results where one of the words or phrases appears. It broadens your search.
Example: "job ready" OR "work ready" OR employable



NOT is used to exclude terms you don't want to find. It narrows your search.
Example: accounting NOT tax



Brackets () are used when you are using both AND and OR in a basic search. Because there is only one search box in a basic search, brackets are needed to group the synonyms that are combined using OR. The other words that have been combined with AND go outside the brackets. This tells the database to find at least one of the words or phrases from within the brackets as well as all of the words that are outside the brackets. It is a way of doing multiple searches at the same time.
Example: ("job ready" OR "work ready" OR employable) AND "interpersonal skills" AND accountants


Demonstration: You may find it easier to understand how using AND, OR and NOT work by watching them is use.

Step 4 - Using the filters and limits in databases to refine your search

Most databases provide a range of options which enable you to refine your search results by manipulating specific elements of your search. Each database has it's own options for refining the search, the following are common to most databases:


Basic limits

There are basic limits that usually just require you to tick a checkbox, or select/enter dates. These are usually near the top of the menu and include:

  • Publication Date
  • Peer-reviewed content
  • Type of Publication


Article type

Some databases allow you to limit your search to a specific type of document, e.g:

  • Academic journal articles
  • Case studies
  • Conference papers
  • Technical papers
  • Reports
  • Review articles


Specific fields of the database record

Each item in a database has a record that contains information about it, e.g. who the author's are, which year it was published in, the title etc. All of this information is put into specific fields. You can use theses fields to build much more accurate searches. If you go to the Advanced Search you'll find a dropdown list of available fields next to each search box. Enter your words into the box and select the field you want to search for them in. Examples of searchable fields include:

  • Author
  • Title – this is the article title
  • Subject
  • Abstract – this is the summary of the article.
  • Title, Abstract and Keywords
  • All except full text – this is all fields of the record but not the full article. It includes the abstract.
  • Publication Name – this is the journal title


Subject Terms

Subject Terms, also known as subject headings, are set terms used to group documents by topic in databases. You can use these in addition to you keywords to refine your search, because multiple keywords will come under the same subject heading.

You might find them:

  • in the item record, (usually hyperlinked so you can click on them to get a list of titles grouped under that heading),
  • as fields to search from a menu beside the search box, or
  • in the side menu of search limiters in the results list.

Health and medical disciplines use specialist Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). These are organised in a structured hierarchy of headings and subheadings. If you are studying health and medical sciences, you will also need to think about the MeSH terms for your keywords. The Using Health and Medical Sciences guide has information on how to do this.


Below is a video, produced by Curtin University, that demonstrates searching with keywords and searching with subject terms so you can see the difference in results.

Step 5 - Reviewing your search results

You need to review your search results both during, and after, your searches. This helps to ensure that your results are relevant and comprehensive.

During your searches:

  • Think about the number of results. New areas of research may only have a few dozen articles published whilst a well-established area will have hundreds (or more).Generally, aim for results lists with no more than 100-150 articles per search - larger numbers will be difficult to work through, and may indicate that your search has not focused closely enough on specific aspects of your topic.

  • Briefly review each article. Don't rely on the article title. Read the abstract to get a clearer picture of what is covered in the article. This will help you short-list the articles that are most likely to be relevant. You will still need to read the full article for everything in your short-list, to determine whether you can use it or not, but you will have a smaller number to read in full.

  • As you work through the articles, you might like to check whether you have a balance between research and review articles, and recent and older research. The preferred balance will vary according to the nature of the topic.

  • For more information on evaluating sources see the Evaluating Books, Journal Articles and Websites guide.

After your searches:

Consider your results as a whole. If you have some familiarity with the topic, you may be able to identify whether well-known researchers are represented in your results, or research that you were already aware of (if not, why not?). Consider whether the results appear to be a fair representation of what you would have expected to find, or whether there are elements missing.

Step 6 - Making the most of your search results

Databases are designed to be mined for information, so make the most of them and get as much information as you can from your search results:

  • Once you have located a relevant citation, look at the complete record to see if there are other terms listed which might be useful for searching. Depending on the database you are using, these may be called subject headings, descriptors, concepts, codes etc.

  • Check the reference lists of relevant articles for other relevant citations.

  • If you have identified significant researcher/s, try an Author search on their name/s.

  • If you are using the Scopus database, use the cited by links to see how other authors have used a particular article. For Web of Science use the Times cited links.

  • If a particular search has yielded good results, consider creating an alert for it. This instructs the database to run the search automatically on a regular basis, and notify you when new articles are published in your area of interest. The Alerting and Current Awareness Services Library Guide provides links to more details.