Skip to main content
Banner Image

Research tips & tricks

How to use SuperSearch and other library resources. Updated September 2017.

The search process

Construct a search strategy

  • Define your topic
  • What question do you want to answer?
  • Identify key words and phrases that describe your answer
  • Brainstorm alternate spellings, related terms, broader concepts, and more specific concepts
  • Identify the subject area or areas which your topic may fall under

Select a database

  • Browse the A-Z List of Databases for your subject area
  • Pick 1-3 databases that look most relevant to your search

Test and refine your search

  • Test your keywords and phrases in each database
  • If you don't find what you're looking for right away, try some of the alternate terms you brainstormed earlier
  • Refine your search using the side menu options

Advanced search techniques

  • Phrase searching looks for the exact words in the exact order
    • "sports injury" or "mass incarceration" or "solar power"
  • Truncation (*) and wildcards (?) search for words that contain the entered text, while also looking for alternates
    • rob* searches for robotics, robbery, and Robespierre.
    • *oxi* matches terms such as antioxidant, dioxide, and paradoxical.
    • wom?n searches for woman, women, and womyn.
  • Combine search boxes using AND, OR, NOT.   AND searches for both terms, OR searches for either term, NOT omits a term. Combining these operators with truncated and wildcard search strategies can enrich the results.
    • ("solar power" AND nanocrystal) NOT chem*
    • Na OR sodium
    • (heart OR cardi*) AND treatment 

Brainstorming keywords

Keywords are the cornerstone of most database searches. A keyword search looks for matching words in titles, descriptions, abstracts, and other descriptive information. Sometimes the author provides keywords; the database will also assign subject headings (a controlled list of terms) to aid in searching.

Some ideas to get you brainstorming keywords:

  • Browse journals to get a sense of how researchers talk about your topic.
  • Talk with your research advisor (often your instructor) about their expectations for the project and topics that will be most helpful.
  • Consider larger fields where your topic fits.
  • Take note of popular stories on the topic that interest you. How do they talk about the topic differently from academic researchers?
  • Consult a librarian. When you talk to someone outside of the field, you can get an outside perspective that can help guide your research.

Documenting your search

Maintaining a record of your search is is a good way to ensure the completeness of your research. A systematic strategy of recording searches helps you to assess the changes to your searches as your research progresses, and it helps others replicate your searches for their own systematic reviews of the subject.

Many databases, including SuperSearch, provide features to help you document your searches when logged in. It is worthwhile to create an account in databases to save your searches and set up search alerts.

Saved searches retain the information from searches you've already done. Some databases allow you to export the information from saved searches easily. However, not all databases retain static records of the searches. That is, the results from a search you do today will not be available in a year; the database will perform the same search again, with the most recent available results.

Search alerts notify you when new content is available within your search parameters. This feature can be useful to keep you informed about your research topic while saving you the time of redoing searches every few weeks or months.


In your documentation of the various searches, you'll need to register the following:

  • databases and platforms (e.g., ERIC via EBSCO, ERIC via Proquest, or ERIC via U.S. Department of Education): This will help you recall where you conducted the searches.
  • date for each search: Matching research to your dated notes will help organize your information.
  • subject and keyword: Include here which terms you explored during the search, and which terms you truncated and expanded.
  • combinations of terms: Record what variations of term combinations you used in the search.
  • number of results: The total number of results, regardless of their relevance to your research, will help you identify changes since your last search.

In hand-searching (looking through journal contents by hand), take note of the source and the year.

How does a database work?

You are probably used to finding information through popular search engines like Google. Web search engines use highly complex algorithms for "natural language searching." You can put in whole sentences or questions, and Google will know what you are searching for. 

It's why searches like "which president had a pet alligator" will bring up the correct answer (John Quincy Adams). Google isn't actually searching for the entire phrase. Instead, it identifies the keywords (president, pet, alligator) and eliminates the filler words (which, had). Google also looks for related words (government, animal, crocodile), which is why "which president had a pet crocodile" will still point you to information about John Quincy Adams and his pet alligator—Google assumes that you may be asking the wrong question. 

Library databases are different. They assume that you know how to ask the right questions. If you put in filler words like which or had, it will search for those—and only show you search results that include those words. If you look for articles about John Quincy Adams and his crocodile, you won't find anything—because he had an alligator. 

Before you start searching in a library database, you need to brainstorm keywords and phrases that describe your topic, and practice using advanced search techniques to eliminate irrelevant results.