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Top Ten Search Tips

1. Use AND to combine keywords and phrases when searching the electronic databases for journal articles.

  • china and film and history
  • veterans and pensions and legislation
  • united states and foreign policy

Unlike in Google and in other search engines, you will not get satisfactory results if you type an entire sentence, such as "the effect of advertising in mass media on teenage consumers." You need to pick out the key phrases, words, and concepts.

  • advertising and mass media and teenagers and consumers

If you type several words without AND in between, some of the article databases will assume you want only items where those words appear right next to each other, and in that exact order.

2. Use truncation (an asterisk) and wildcards (usually a question mark or exclamation point).

  • child* and education
  • globali?ation and analysis

Child* brings up child, children, childhood, and any other word that starts with the root "child." This works in most of the databases.

Globali?ation brings up items with the words globalization or globalisation.

If you don't use truncation and wildcards, some databases will look for an exact match to the words you type, and you may miss some relevant materials.

Warning: If you shorten the root word too much, you will bring up irrelevant items (soc* will bring up society and social and socioeconomic, but also Socrates).

3. Find out if the database you're using has a "subject search" option.

  • In Medline, click on MESH.
  • In Ethnic Newswatch, in the Advanced Search, find the Thesaurus or click on "Look Up Subjects."
  • In Academic OneFile, look for the Subject Guide Search, instead of using the large search box. 

For some topics, subject searching works better than keyword searching, which is usually the default. 

This may bring up fewer results, but you'll be searching with more precision.

Use the results of a keyword search to discover subject headings (descriptors) used in the database. Usually, they will appear at the bottom of the article or somewhere in the citation. For example, by doing a keyword search for "girls and prostitution" you will discover that Academic OneFile uses subject terms such as "Child prostitution" and "Child sexual abuse."

4. Use your imagination.

Think of all the possible ways to express your topic. Brainstorm until you've exhausted all possibilities. An article about global warming may not have the phrase "global warming" anywhere in it. Instead, you may find that the title contains the words "surface temperature records" and a cataloger has assigned it the subject heading "climate change."

To get the best results, use the word OR inside parentheses.

  • (AIDS or HIV) and (television or movies or motion pictures)
  • (teen* or adolescen*) and (girl* or female) and aggression

5. Approach your research like a detective, looking for clues in all that you discover.

As you begin to find information, keep an eye out for the "big names" in your research area-for example, key people and organizations. Notice the names of people who are often quoted in the news; scholars who are doing research on your topic and the universities with which they are affiliated; activists and leaders working on a political or social issue; spokespersons and influential figures. Then, search for books and articles written by them. If a person has spoken at a conference, find out if the conference proceedings are available (on a web site, or in our library, or via interlibrary loan). Check the bibliographies and footnotes in the books and articles you come across, and see if our library holds the materials cited by them. Find out if there is a local or national organization related to your topic. See what information is available on its web site. You might contact the organization by phone or email to find out what information they provide to the public, and whether they have staff that can assist you in getting more information. Municipal, state, and federal government web sites tend to post a lot of valuable information, including statistics and reports.

6. Browse the stacks in your subject area.

Searching the library catalog through Scholar OneSearch and getting the exact call number and location is almost always the most efficient way to find books on your topic or books by a particular author, but browsing the shelves is a great way to get familiar with the collections--and you can browse using Scholar OneSearch as well as looking on the shelves.

Our books are organized using the Library of Congress Classification system.  The letters don't correspond to anything, they are more or less randomly assigned, for example:

Books on education are in the L section. Business is in the HB-HG section. Politics is J.  Materials in the sciences and mathematics are in the Q section.  Health Sciences are in the R section. Engineering is in the T section.

How do you know which subjects correspond to which letters? Check this list:


7. When searching for books, use broader terms than when searching for articles.

Example: instead of Title IX, try Sex discrimination in education

Subjects and keywords for books usually describe what the whole book is about--the main topics, not every topic covered. In the article databases, the subjects will describe what the article or chapter of a book is about. This means you can sometimes do the "needle in a haystack" searches in the article databases. That kind of search rarely works as well in the library catalog.

8. Don't limit yourself to just one database or one set of search results.

Search a database that covers many subjects (e.g., Academic Search Premier or Scholar OneSearch) as well as a subject-specialized database (e.g., Communication and Mass Media Complete for communications, MLA Bibliography for literature). The same search phrase entered in two different databases may bring up very different results. If your topic encompasses more than one major subject area-business and art, for example- try searching both a business database and an art database. Ask at the reference desk for our recommendations. Try different phrases; try the same search across multiple databases. Don't be content with the results of one search.

9. Don't discount non full-text databases.

If you're doing anything beyond superficial research, don't avoid using a database just because it doesn't have any full text; it may be the most comprehensive index for your topic. You'll be able to get the citation and abstract (summary); the article may be available in print in the journal stacks in our library. Search both the full-text databases and the abstracts-only databases to get the best view of what is available. If you find a citation and don't see the full text in the database, search the ejournals list for the journal title, to see if the article is available to you electronically, as a Northeastern affiliate.

You may want to start with a database that contains some full text, but don't let your search stop there.

(For more information on how to locate full text articles in print or electronic form, see our library's online tutorial section called Locating Full Text.)

10. And of course, ask a librarian if you have questions!

Don't spin your wheels and waste a lot of time if you get stuck or encounter something confusing. A librarian at the research assistance desk can save you time and help you find better information, more efficiently. For example, we can suggest the best databases for your topic. We can show you the most efficient way to search for articles by a particular author (HINT: usually not by keyword searching). We can advise you on search strategies and techniques tailored to your topic.

Also, a librarian can provide referrals to other sources and collections outside Northeastern University. We may know that there is a good collection of local history materials on your topic at the Boston Public Library. We can tell you which other libraries in the Boston area hold the medical journal you're seeking. Suppose you are doing research on advertising--we could tell you, for example, that the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe is a good place to find popular women's magazines, such as Seventeen and Good Housekeeping, going back to the 1940s or earlier.

If a quick stop at the reference desk is not sufficient for your needs, it is possible to set up a time for a research consultation with a subject specialist librarian.

View a list of Subject Specialists.

For more assistance, use Ask A Librarian.


The following keyword searches may be helpful as a starting place for your research.

[your topic] and psychological aspects
[your topic] and political aspects
[your topic] and religious aspects
[your topic] and personal narratives
[your topic] and public opinion
[your topic] and (laws or regulations)
[your topic] and statistical data
[your topic] and social policy
[your topic] and interviews
[your topic] and crimes against
[your topic] and health aspects

Created by Kathy Herrlich, Research & Instruction Services

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