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How do I improve my keyword search in databases and catalogs?

I have a research topic, but I don't know how to enter keywords in a database. How do I select keywords?
Last Updated: Jul 16, 2015  |  115 Views

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When you perform a search from a research topic, follow these tips:

  • Select only the most important words and phrases from your topic. Don't include connecting words like "for" or "the," or words like "cause" or "effect" that could be a part of any topic statement. 

  • Search for individual words and phrases, not sentences. Databases don't understand grammar.

  • Combine terms with AND to narrow your focus. To find info about fur on dogs, search: fur AND dogs.

  • Combine terms with OR to expand your focus. To find info about fur on either dogs or cats, search: fur AND (dogs OR cats).

Example: Using multiple boxes

In a database, if you were researching:

What is the effect on a dog's fur of eating fish 

You could use the database search boxes to enter:

AND fur OR coat
AND fish OR seafood

In other words:

  • separate your main concepts into different boxes connected with AND
  • add alternate keywords within a box using OR.

If you find too few results, try brainstorming new terms or making your topic more general (e.g. dogs --> pets).


  • For more online help, view the slide shows at the Ask Us answer, "How do I get better search results through research and database techniques?"
  • The University of Texas Libraries have produced an interactive tutorial on generating a keyword search from a research topic.
    • Go through all the steps.
    • Then, in the last screen under "Automatically Search with Your Keywords," copy and paste the entire search string, for example (dogs OR canines) AND (fleas OR ticks), into a single search box in any library database.
Answered by Loan NguyenBookmark and Share

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