In appointments with students I am often shown an assignment question and asked to help search for related literature. Below are some methods and tips for choosing and combining keywords to use in Library Search, the library's subscribed databases, or Google Scholar.
For a more detailed look at advanced search strategies try our Academic Skills Online tutorial or if you need help with searching a specific topic you can book an appointment with me or another Subject Librarian to discuss it.
We can use our set essay questions as a starting point, or if you have your own question you can use that too. If you have lots of ideas it's a good exercise to try and write your research question in one or two sentences.
Next, we pick out the key concepts, theories, places or names. These are generally nouns. See the example here:
Do social media and digital systems of automation amplify social inequalities?
So as a starting point we might search for "social media" automation "social inequality" in Library Search.
Note that we put the terms social media and social inequality inside speech marks to search for the exact phrases, rather than the individual words separately. For more tips like this see the below section on Combining Keywords.
It can be useful to consider synonyms or related terms as alternative keywords in our search strategies. Let's look at out example search again:
|Keyword||Synonym or related term|
|"social inequality"||"social mobility"|
|"social media"||"social networks"|
|"user generated content"|
Pro tip: ProQuest databases have a list of subject-specific thesauri. EBSCO databases also have thesauri which can be accessed via the 'Subjects' link in the top toolbar.
Now that we have our keywords, synonyms and related terms we can look at how to combine them. The advanced search options in Library Search give us a form to combine our keywords using AND OR NOT, alternatively we can use the tips from the table below to write our search in a single line:
(automation OR algorithm) AND ("social inequality" OR "social mobility" OR "cultural capital") AND ("social media" OR "social networks" OR "user generated content")
The below table lists some useful 'operators' for combining search terms, how to use them and whether they work in Library Search or on Google.
|Operator||Description||Works in Library Search?||Works in Google?||Tips|
Searches for an exact phrase
example: “nation branding”
|✔||✔||Use quotation marks on a single word in Google to exclude synonyms|
Searches your term and synonyms
example: ~vegetarian AND "climate change" will also include results about the related term veganism
|✖||✔||Be mindful that Google’s synonyms are generated by an algorithm. See also OR|
|* Wildcard||Searches for part of a word, e.g. postcolon* finds postcolonial, postcolonialism||✔||✔||In Library Search you can also use ? as a wildcard.|
|AND||Narrows results to find resources that use both terms, e.g. populism AND politics||✔||✔|
|OR||Expand results to find resources that contain either terms, e.g. sexism OR misogyny||✔||✔||In Google you can also use | , e.g. sexism|misogyny|
|NOT||Excludes a specific term, e.g. metaverse NOT facebook will hide resources mentioning facebook.||✔||✖||In Google use a minus instead, e.g. metaverse -facebook|
|() Parentheses||Groups multiple terms or operators, e.g. (metaverse NOT facebook) AND (second life)||✔||✖||Using advanced search forms can be easier than multiple parentheses|
|AROUND(x)||Finds terms in within a certain amount of words from each other, e.g. Britain AROUND(8) reparations||✖||✔||Many databases use NEAR/x for this function, e.g. Britain NEAR/8 reparations|