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Research Skills for Students

An Open Educational Resource


Getting Started

Starting with a research question helps you figure out precisely what you’re looking for. Next, you’ll need the most effective set of search terms – starting from main concepts and then identifying and other related terms (synonyms). Those search terms need to be arranged in the most effective way as search statements, which you actually type into a search box.


An important thing to remember is that searching is an iterative process: we try search statements, take a look at what we found and, if the results weren’t good enough, edit our search statements and search again—often multiple times. Most of the time, the first statements we try are not the best, even though Google or another search tool we’re using may give us many results.

It pays to search further for the sources that will help you the most. 

Here are the steps for an effective search.

Consider AND, OR, NOT

You can do more precise searching by combining search terms by using the words AND, OR, and NOT. These are known as Boolean Operators. Generally, using these operators narrows your search, making it more precise.



AND – If the main idea contains two or more ideas, you’ll want to use AND to combine those terms in your search statement. For example if you were answering the research question "The impact of technology on older adults in social isolation", it might look something like this:

                                   Technology AND Older Adults AND Social Isolation

OR – If the main idea has several synonyms, use OR to combine them. Most search tools search for all terms (AND) by default, so you need to use the operator OR between terms to let them know you want to find any of the terms not documents with all the terms. For instance, using the previous example

               (Technology OR "Mobile Phones" OR ICTs)  AND (aged or aging or ageing or elder* or geriatric*) AND (Social Isolation OR Loneliness OR Alienation)


NOT – If the main idea has a common use you want to exclude, use NOT to exclude that word. For example, if we were looking for information about illegal drug use we would want to exclude prescription drugs from the search results. Be careful using the NOT operator as you don't want to exclude potentially useful information.








Truncation instructs the database that when you are searching for a free-text keyword search that it should search for the root of the word you have typed in and then retrieve any alternate endings.

This is excellent for searching for plurals without having to type out both the singular and plural in your search, but will find also find any other alternative endings (some of which may not be relevant to your topic).

A keyword search for dentist* would retrieve any article which has the word dentist or dentists or dentistry somewhere in the title, abstract or other field. A keyword search for therap* would retrieve any articles where the word therapy or therapies appeared, but would also retrieve articles which included the word therapeutic (likely to be relevant) and also therapist(s) (perhaps less likely to be relevant if you were initially wanting to search for therapies).


As well as truncation other wildcards are available to use on some databases. These wildcards differ from database to database so it is worth checking (via their help pages) if you are looking for a particular function on a database platform.

OvidSP databases (e.g. Medline, Embase, PsycINFO)

Use # inside or at the end of a word to replace exactly one character, e.g. wom#n for women and woman.
Use ? inside or at the end of a word to replace zero or one character, e.g. robot? for robot OR robots, but not robotic; flavo?r for flavor OR flavour, but not flavours. Operators can be combined, e.g. an?emi* for anaemia OR anemia OR anaemic OR anemic
Note that $ can be used as alternative to * to indicate truncation in Ovid.

Main Concepts

Identify the main concepts in your research question by selecting nouns important to the meaning of your question. Leave out words that don’t help the search, such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and, usually, verbs. Nouns that you would use to tag your research question so you could find it later are likely to be its main concepts.

Finding the main concepts in a research question is a lot like finding the main idea in an essay or story. Often the main idea is in the first paragraph, but not always. Sometimes it’s in a later paragraph or even in the conclusion. The same is true with research questions—the main concepts can be at the beginning, middle, or end. Stick to the nouns and only what’s necessary, not already implied. Don’t read in concepts that are not really there. Be alert to words that may have connotations other than the concept you are interested in. For instance, if you identify depression as a main idea, be aware that the search engine won’t automatically know whether you mean depression as a psychological state or as a condition of the economy or as a weather characteristic. 

Example 1: How are birds affected by wind turbines?

The main concepts are birds and wind turbines. Avoid terms like affect (except the noun) and effect as search terms, even when you’re looking for studies that report effects or effectiveness.

Example 2: Does the use of mobile technologies by teachers and students in the classroom distract from or enhance the educational experience?

Acceptable main concepts are teaching methods and mobile technology. Another possibility is mobile technologies and education.
Watch out for overly broad terms. For example, you may not want to include 'technology', which is much broader a concept than 'mobile technology'.

Example 3: Is Yoga an effective intervention for epilepsy?

(Yoga OR Pranayama OR Asanas OR Relaxation therap* OR relax* treat*) AND (epilep* or seizure* or convuls*).

Note: You can see in this example that some of these keywords have been truncated using an asterix *

Therap*= will retrieve the words therapy, therapist, therapies

Epilep* = will retrieve epilepsy, epileptic

Example 4: Mindfulness for Smoking Cessation

(Tobacco or smoking cessation or quit* or smok* or cigar* or tobacco* or nicotine*) AND (meditat* or mindful* or breathing technique*) 

Note: You can see in this example that some of these keywords have been truncated using an asterix *


A comprehensive search strategy will include:

1. Correct use of Boolean Operators AND OR NOT 

2. Relevant keywords for each concept (including synonyms and possibly antonyms)

3. Truncation (* $) e.g. adolescen* retrieves adolescent, adolescents, or adolescence

using Wildcards (# ?) e.g. wom#n retrieves woman or women

4. Phrase searching to search for particular phrases e.g. "mental health"

5. Subject Headings where applicable. (Please refer to Health Sciences LibGuide for more info on subject headings).

Visit this link for guidance on advanced search techniques:



Imagine that you are putting together a search strategy for the following research question

The impact of technology on older adults in social isolation

Example of how you might combine concepts:

                                           Technology AND Older Adults AND Social Isolation

You will also need to think of other keywords relating to these concepts depending on the scope of the question

For example for "technology" you may want to consider particular types of technologies that fit your inclusion criteria e.g. social media, ICTs mobile phones etc. and for "older adults" you will also need to explore keywords such as aged, aging, seniors etc.


3. A sample search strategy might look something like this:

(technolog* OR "mobile phone*" OR cellphone* OR ICTs) AND (aged or aging or ageing or elder* or geriatric*) AND ("social isolat*" OR alienat* OR solitude)

Note: As you will see this example includes keywords for the different concepts & includes truncation to include different endings. For a more comprehensive search, all relevant keywords would need to be included and if using some of the medical databases you would also need to use relevant subject headings.