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SW 4100: Social Work Research Methods: Search Tips


Choosing Keywords

How To Choose Effective Keywords

1. When searching in library databases its not effective to enter entire research topic or question like you would in Google. Instead, you want to break down your topic or question into keywords. Ask yourself what are the main points or ideas of your topic?

Mind map, center: your topic. branches: main point, important idea, target age range, key concept

2. Let's say you were researching methods for encouraging student engagement in high school students in rural communities, your keywords would be: rural communities, student engagement and high school. 

Academic Search Ultimate: rural communities AND student engagement AND highschool

3. It is also useful to brainstorm alternate keywords for your topic. These can be synonyms, sub topics you are interested in, related terms, etc.

Alternate keywords for high school are secondary education or upper classmen; alternate keywords for student engagement are community involvement and internships

There are also words that aren't useful as keywords. Such as "effect" or "benefit". Instead, try to brainstorm specific effects or benefits to use as keywords. If you find an article you like look at their "Abstract," and "Subjects" to find new keywords.

Article, arrows pointing to subject and abstract

What Are Boolean Operators?

Boolean Logic

Boolean operators are terms you can use to narrow or broaden your search in a database, library catalog or Google Scholar. The three basic operators are: AND, OR, and NOT

Why Use Them?

  • To focus a search when you are using multiple terms
  • To include synonyms for your search terms in order to find all variations 
  • To exclude terms not relevant to your search

Using AND (Narrowing)

How To Use AND

Use the operator "AND" in a search to:

  • Narrow your results
  • Tell the database that ALL the terms must be present in the search results
  • TIP: Put phrases such as United States or college students in "" to tell the database you want those terms together in your search


Search String: Anxiety AND "college students" AND alcohol

The search above tells the database that you want each article in your results to mention ALL the search terms. This narrows your results because all the terms must be present instead of any articles about anxiety, or college students, or alcohol.

Search String: Racism AND elections AND "United States"

The venn diagram below demonstrates that AND is the intersection of all your search terms - thus it narrows your search.

AND is the overlap of all your search terms

Using OR (Broadening)

How to Use OR

Use the operator OR to:

  • Broaden your search by telling the database that ANY of the terms can be present in your results
  • To include synonyms or related concepts for your search terms


Search String: College students OR university students OR undergraduates OR graduate students

The example above will broaden your search because it will pull up articles with ANY of those terms present.

Search String: Feminism OR Gender inequality OR women's rights

OR tells the database to pull up ANY of the search terms

Using NOT (Narrowing)

How to Use NOT

Use the operator NOT to:

  • Narrow your results 
  • Exclude specific words or concepts from your search results


Search String: Participation AND Democracy NOT "United States"

This tells the database to pull up results about participation and democracy but to exclude any articles that are about participation and democracy specifically in the United States.

NOT excludes terms from your search


How to Nest Operators

Databases usually default to AND as the primary operator and connect concepts tied together with AND first. You can use parentheses ( ) to indicate to the database how you want your terms to be connected. 


  • Feminism AND (politics OR "public policy" OR government)
  • ("Mental health" OR anxiety OR depression NOT suicide) AND ("college students" OR undergraduates OR university students) AND alcoho


What is Truncation?

Truncation is useful when you have search terms that are "root" terms. For example: teen, teens, teenager. By adding an asterisk * to the end of the root term you can search for all the variations in one search. 


  • Music*: Musical, musician, musicians, musicality 
  • Politic*: Politics; political, politically


What are Wildcards?

Wildcard searching is useful when you have multiple spellings for a word. For example: color vs. colour. You could use the wildcard ? to ensure your results include both variations of the spelling: col?r 


  • Wom?n
  • gr?y

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