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Finding books & journals: Use search techniques

"If in doubt, check the help area of each database you use. It will outline all of the relevant symbols for advanced search techniques"

Fiona Ware, Library Skills Adviser

Now that you have identified the key search terms and how they can be combined, you need to consider some additional search techniques that can improve the relevancy and number of your results.

These will take into account things like different spellings, plural words, similar and related words, different words for the same concept etc. You do not want to miss a key paper because the author used “social networking” and you had only searched for “social media”! The main techniques to help with this are explained in the list below – just click on any one to see an explanation of how to use it.


Use truncation to ensure all relevant articles are retrieved. This is often denoted by an asterisk * which is placed at the stem of the word. Truncating a term will look for variant endings and plurals.

Example 1: teen* would include results for: teen, teens, teenager, teenagers
Example 2: technolog* would include results for: technology, technlogical, technologist, technologies
Example 3: manag* would include results for: manage, manages, management, manager, managerial

Phrase searching

Enclose your search terms within double quotation marks, i.e “social media”. This will avoid databases automatically inserting an “AND” between your search terms.

Example: If you enter teenagers social media it will include all the search terms (i.e. teenagers AND social AND media) but the terms will not necessarily appear together. Using double quotation marks around "social media" will ensure only these two words in this specific order are included in results.


Use wildcards to improve your search. Different databases use different symbols. For example, on the EBSCOhost database, ? replaces one character, # replaces one or more.

Example 1: On an EBSCOhost * database, colo#r, would find both color and colour.
Example 2: On an EBSCOhost * database, wom?n, would find both women and woman.
*Each database may have slightly different operators so check the help file for whatever database you're using


Narrow and focus your search, e.g. proximity searching. You can use operators NEAR (often N), Adjacent (ADJ) or SAME (in Web of Science). In some databases, you can specify the distances between search words, for example, in the EBSCOhost databases (such as Academic Search Premier, Business Source Premier and Cinahl).

Example 1: teenager N3 facebook will find results with these three words in in any order.
Example 2: teenager W3 facebook will find results with these three words but in order specified.


See the following examples of the use of truncation, wildcards, phrase searches and proximity. These examples build on the previous pages on identifying key terms and combining search terms

Example 1: teenagers and the use of social media

 (teen* OR adolescen*  OR "young adult*" OR youth* ) AND ("social media" OR facebook OR twitter OR snapchat) 

Example 2: heart problems and the elderly

("heart attack" OR "myocardial infarction" OR MI OR "cardiac arrest") AND (elder* OR old* OR geriatric OR senior)

Example 3: plants on sandy shores

(plant* OR flora* ) N3 ("sandy shore*" OR shoreline*  OR beach*  OR foreshore* )