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Literature searching: How to find and use databases: 4. Planning and undertaking searches

An introduction to undertaking literature searches. Planning your search, selecting search terms and constructing searches. Evaluating material you find, and recording and referencing the sources you use.

Planning and undertaking searches

Take time to plan your search strategy. Which databases will you search first? Which keywords will you begin with? How will you follow up references to materials? Good searching requires you to move between different sources and types of source.

Also, bear in mind that you will probably need to conduct new searches across the same databases at different stages of the research process and, as you learn more about the subject, you may need to feed what you have learned back into new searches.

When planning and undertaking searches in a database you should know:

  • What the content you are searching across is,
  • Which syntax (operators and connectors) you can use to refine searches, and
  • How you can use other functions to restrict your results.

You should also understand the results you get back and how to work with these.

Database content

When using a database service, it is important to know what material you are searching across.

While it might be obvious that you won’t find a journal article if searching the UK Parliamentary Papers database, other considerations are less obvious. For example, you may need to check:

  • which sources are covered in a database,
  • the dates covered and
  • which countries are covered.

It is also important to know whether you are searching across full-text documents or abstracts (that is, summaries) as this can not only impact on what documents you retrieve, but also how you can search most effectively.

You can usually find this information by following links within databases to ‘coverage’, ‘content’, ‘information’, ‘about’ , ‘help’ etc.

'Search syntax' - using operators and connectors (Boolean searching)

You can use these connectors to express the relationship between search terms in order to increase or reduce the number of results.

Many are common between different databases, but some vary so always check the connectors you should be using.

Be systematic when constructing searches, as you add terms and connectors take note of the effect they are having on your results.

Below, you can see some of the main connector functions used across databases.

Operator Variants Examples Effect
Common operators/connectors

&, +

football AND economy

Restricts results to documents containing both terms



football OR soccer

Expands results to documents containing either term


football NOT "american football"

Restricts results to documents containing the first term but not the second

n/3 w/3, /3,

football NEAR/5 scotland

Restricts in similar way to AND but are more specific (e.g. searching for terms within a given number of words)

Exact Phrase

“     ”

association football

Retrieves only documents which contain the terms appearing as an exact phrase

*, ?


retrieves documents containing spelling variations or related words

Root Expander

!, ?, *

Scot* (for Scotland, Scots, Scottish...)

retrieves documents containing terms with a common ‘root’

(      )

football NEAR/5 (economy OR "economic impact")

organise and group terms


Field and date restrictors

In addition to using connectors, you can also use field and date restrictors to refine your search results.

These options are often available in an ‘Advanced’ search, but may vary depending on the database you are using.

Field restrictors

A ‘field’ restrictor defines the section of a document a search term should occur in – e.g. author, title, subject, anywhere in the free text.

Date restrictors

A date restrictor indicates a specific date or a range of dates for when documents retrieved should have been created.

ProQuest date restrictor image


Once you have your initial search results you can often use functions in the results screeProQuest Refine results options imagen to work with your results and make them more relevant to your research. For example, you may use ‘modify’ and ‘search within results’ functions to alter your initial search. You might also use the sort and narrow (or limit) options to refine your results.

The information and functions available in a results list and individual records vary between database services.

However, other things to take note of in individual records include:

  • Whether the results are full-text or abstracts,
  • Whether an abstract offers a link to full text,
  • If not, can you check for full text using the Find it @Strathclyde button?
  • Do records offer the function to trace back research by viewing earlier documents references?; or
  • trace forward research by viewing later documents citing the one you have found?

Also look out for options to email or download records or export them to reference management software (such as Endnote).