Module 2: How to formulate a good search query?

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3. Summary

  • The quality of your search results greatly depends on using the adequate search terms.
  • To explore your research domain and define your subject, you could use general search engines, browse through (scientific) web directories, utilize (online) reference works or go through scientific and/or review journals.
  • It is important to deduct a clearly formulated problem definition from the assigned subject. What is your exact assignment? What (definitely not) to do? How far can you / do you need to go when searching for information on your subject? When is your deadline?...
  • From that clearly defined problem definition, keywords can be derived, i.e. a limited number of key concepts that are directly relevant to your assignment.
  • By complementing keywords of your problem definition with translations, synonyms, singular or plural form, narrower and/or broader and/or related terms, you obtain a good set of adequate search terms.

How to combine search terms?

Technique 1: Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT)

  • AND: Used to search only for information that contains both search terms (intersection).
  • OR: Used to search for information that contains at least one of both search terms (union).
  • NOT: Used to search for information that contains the first but not the second search term (set difference).

Technique 2: Truncation symbols (wildcards)

  • * (asterisk): used to replace one or multiple characters. Generally, this symbol can only be used after the word stem (f.e. Herodot* for Herodotos and Herodotus).
  • ? (question mark): used to replace one character. This symbol can be used after a word and in some databases also in the middle of a word (f.e. wom?n for woman and women).

Technique 3: Exact word combination (“string search”)

  • If you wish to find only search results that contain the entered search terms in that exact order, enclose your search terms in "double quotation marks" (f.e. "Martin Luther King").

Technique 4: Filters and search field specification

  • Filters can be used to narrow the search results of a search query. On online databases/catalogs, these are usually offered at the Advanced search function.
  • In advanced search, often it is also possible to search by several fields at the same time.