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ENG W131 Elementary Composition

Brainstorming Keywords

Identify effective search terms for database and web resources. (From Portland State University.)

Identify Keywords with Subjects

Subject Terms can help you identify effective keywords. Most databases list Subjects in their search results.

To use subject terms from you search results: 

1. Do an initial search. 

2. Under Refine Search click on Subject.

Essential Tips

  • Choose keywords selectively. Avoid empty words like "the" and "how."  
  • Consider what types of sources do you need. Choose a research tool with the right types of sources. 
    (e.g., IUCAT for books, library databases for scholarly articles, specialized databases for news or media images). 
  • Search strategies depend on the research tool. Experiment with keywords and search options.
    (In databases choose search terms more carefully.)

Boolean Operators

Use AND, OR, and NOT to narrow or broaden search results.

Venn Diagram dipicting the example search Renewable Energy AND ChinaUsing AND

  • narrows results
  • ALL terms must be in each search result

Note: in most, but not all, databases, the AND is implied. For example, Google automatically puts an AND in between search terms.

Example:  renewable energy AND China


Using ORVenn Diagram depicting the example search Renewable Energy OR Wind Or Solar

  • broadens results
  • searches for ANY of the terms in search results
  • connects similar concepts (synonyms)

Example:  renewable energy OR solar OR wind



Using NOTVenn Diagram depicting the search Peacekeeping NOT United Nations

  • narrows results
  • exclude words from search

This operator is great when you notice your search term is used in different disciplines. You might use this example when researching peacekeeping in the context of interpersonal conflict but your search results in documents about international conflict.

Example:  peacekeeping NOT United Nations


Adapted from SAIS Library, Johns Hopkins Univ. "Database Search Tips" Guide (no longer extant).

Database Search Fields

Records in library databases are made of "fields." Fields can help narrow your search.

Example of common fields in databases:

  • author
  • title
  • journal title
  • abstract
  • publisher
  • date/year of publication
  • subject/descriptor
  • all text (searches the full text, if available)

Improving Search Results with Fields

  • Most databases automatically search by keyword (looking for the term anywhere in the record).
  • Limit the field for a search term to narrow the results.
  • Fields are usually in drop down boxes.
  • If the database has a single search box with no drop-down menu, look for an "Advanced Search" option.

Adapted from SAIS Library, Johns Hopkins Univ. "Database Search Tips" Guide (no longer extant).

Phrase searching

Use quotation marks or parentheses around search words to search for a phrase. Otherwise most databases will find records that include both terms, but not necessary the terms as a phrase.


"middle east"
"united nations peacekeeping forces"
"civil society"

Adapted from SAIS Library, Johns Hopkins Univ. "Database Search Tips" Guide


Truncation broadens your search to include variant word endings and spellings. Enter the root of a word and then the truncation symbol.


elect* = election, electoral, elections
econ* = economy, economic, economics, econometric, economique
politi* = politics, political, politician, politique, politische

The most commonly used truncation symbol is an asterisk (*)
A exception is LexisNexis Academic, which uses an exclamation mark (!).


Adapted from SAIS Library, Johns Hopkins Univ. "Database Search Tips" Guide