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Library Skills for Research

Introductory Guide for Graduate Certificate Research

Module Two: Use databases

This module focuses on developing Search Strategies in Databases, including the skills to:

  • Identify key words and alternative terms for searching
  • Use controlled vocabulary terms within databases, as appropriate
  • Use operators (e.g. AND, OR, *) to narrow or broaden search results
  • Refine search results using additional criteria, e.g. filters or limits
  • Add relevant results to a list, to save, print, email or export
  • Access, use and save search history
  • Set up alerts for new content within databases


You will find a quiz at the end of the Module to test your understanding.  


Once you are confidently locating relevant resources in the University of Tasmania Library, you may also require support to manage your references. This topic is covered in Module Three : Manage Information

Plan your search

Watch the video below for an example of how to create a search strategy. 

Then look at the search strategy table for help on what to look for, where to search, and how to develop search terms for your own strategy.


[2.36 mins]

Courtesy of ''University of Leeds Library"


Where to search?

Databases can include journal articles, news articles, streaming videos, and specialised information such as standards, theses, case studies and images.

How do you know which one to choose?

The Subject Guides have been written by librarians to help you select the most relevant databases for your topic.

If you know the name of the database you want, you can find it using the Database A-Z list from Library.

For more information on databases you can go to our Research Support Guide. 

Scholarly sources

Sourcing scholarly literature is essential for most research.

In terms of journals, those that are considered most 'scholarly' are the peer reviewed, or 'refereed' journals.  These journals publish articles that have been assessed critically by other scholars in the author's field.

To identify peer-reviewed journals, please go to the Research Support Guide.

Develop your search strategy 

A search strategy combines the key concepts of your research question in order to retrieve accurate results.

Your search strategy should include for each concept:

  • alternative search terms
  • keywords and phrases
  • truncated and wildcard variations of search terms
  • subject headings or controlled vocabulary (where applicable)

Each database works differently, so you need to adapt your search strategy for each one. You may wish to develop a number of separate search strategies if your research covers several different areas.

It is a good idea to test your strategies and refine them after you have reviewed the search results.

Choose search terms 

When you choose search terms you may want to think about:

  1. Text words or keywords
  2. Controlled, or 'preferred' , subject headings (such as Medline's MeSH: MEdical Subject Headings)
  3. Spelling or word-ending variants 


Text or keywords.  Concepts can be expressed in different terms, which may be single words or phrases. For example, if you are looking for articles on oceans, you might also search for the keywords "sea", "marine",  "water", or possibly a more specific phrase such as "Indian Ocean".   Your aim is to consider each of your concepts and come up with a list of the different ways they could be expressed. When developing your search strategy, start with lists of words and phrases for each concept, and then list synonyms or similar terms. 

Subject headings. These are essentially tags, or umbrella terms, assigned to each article in a database, by human indexers. They identify the topic of each paper. Subject headings are selected from a controlled vocabulary list within each database. Each article may have multiple subject headings. You can refer to the database's subject headings list to find additional search terms. 

Spellings/word endings. Search terms may often appear with different spellings or forms, for example plural or hyphenated. Wildcards and truncation are tools commonly used by databases to find these variants. Always check a database's help screen to make sure which tools are supported .

Wildcards are symbols used to represent zero or more characters in a word. They can usually be used at the end or within a word. For example: wom?n retrieves woman or women.
Truncation adds a symbol, usually an asterisk (*), to the root of a word to instruct the database to search for all its forms. For example: adolescen* retrieves adolescent, adolescents, or adolescence.  


Combine search terms (AND,OR,NOT)

Once you have determined your search terms you can think about how to combine these using AND, OR, NOT (Boolean logic). 

AND: When you combine search terms with AND in a full-text search, your results contain everything in which both terms appear. Combining search terms makes your search results more precise. You can explicitly denote AND in the following ways: cat AND dog, cat && dog, +cat +dog, (cat dog)

OR: Using OR between search terms allows to you find all items that contain either term. Using OR will search for items that contain either the word "cat", the word "dog", or both. For example: cat OR dog

NOT: Searches using NOT will only find items that do not contain the search term following it. NOT must be capitalized. To find all items with the word cat that do not contain the word dog, search for: cat NOT dog, cat -dog (Be sure to include a space before the dash, but not after). 

Grouping Combined Search Terms can assist. Parentheses allow you to determine the order in which terms are combined. The search "currency reform" AND (russia OR "soviet union") will search for items that contain the phrase currency reform and that contain either russia or soviet union.

Searching Databases

Once you have developed your search strategy, you can try it out in relevant databases and refine it as necessary.  Databases have a number of tools to assist you with your searches.  Your librarian can help you explore them.  

Below is a video by Web of Science on how to create a personal profile that will allow you to manage preferences, create alerts, save results, and more. 

[1.54 mins]

Courtesy of Web of Science Training Team at Clarivate Analytics.


Once you have run a search in a database, you have the option to:

  • Refine the results
  • Save the search
  • Set up an alert for a particular topic, article or author

Refine search results using additional criteria, e.g. filters or limits

Filters or limits narrow the focus of your search results according to particular values that you select. You can use more than one limit if available.

Common available limits include:

  • Full Text – Limits results to complete articles.
  • Peer Reviewed – Limits results to articles from peer-reviewed journals. These journals include research articles that have been reviewed and/or qualified by a selected panel of acknowledged experts in the journal's field of study.
  • Date Published – Limits results to articles within a specified date range.

Add relevant results to a list, to save, print, email or export

Some databases allow you to save or email the results of your searches so you can refer to these at a later time. You can also download your search results directly to your reference software (e.g. EndNote). For most databases records can be transferred to your reference software using the direct export function. A small number of databases do not have a direct expect capability, but use a connection file or filter file. 

Access, use and save search history and set up alerts 

The larger databases allow you to set up a personal profile within the database. This is a free, one-off process to be completed on the database homepage and it commonly involves creating a user name and password. This option will allow you to save searches so that you can always return to it and edit, or rerun it against different time periods or parameters. You can create complex queries by combining many searches together in your Search History, then save the combinations so they don't have to be recreated each time you come into the database. Databases which offer alerting systems also require you to become a registered user. 

There are various kinds of alerts for example: Search Alerts - save a search and establish a daily, weekly or monthly email notification when new publications are added that match. Citation Alerts - have a favorite or important article you want to track?  The database will notify you when it receives new citations. Table of Contents Alerts - subscribers can set up TOC alerts for their favorite journals all in one place.



Module Two Quiz

Tip: If you wish to re-take the quiz, please clear your browsing data beforehand.

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