Skip to Main Content

Top Tips for Smarter Searching: Search smarter

Searching library databases

Searching academic databases is a bit different to searching Google.  If you type a full sentence or question into Google you will get a whole load of results.  This is because Google tries to guess what you are looking for.   Academic databases, on the other hand, are designed to be specific and need you to tell them exactly what to look for.  Unlike Google, they return only high quality results from trusted sources. Use these search tips when searching Multisearch, the Library Catalogue or the library's online resources. They will save you time and help you find the most relevant sources to use in your assignments and research. And remember, if you need help, ask us!!

Use Keywords

Use keywords, not sentences when searching library databases.

Keywords describe the main concepts or ideas in your research question.

Aim to use between 2 and 4 keywords.

Watch the short video below by McMaster University Library to learn how to use keywords.

Running time: 2:42

Advanced Search

Most academic databases offer Advanced Search options which can be very useful when planning your search strategies and often allow you to:

  • Connect your keywords using AND, OR and NOT
  • Apply limiters before you start searching.
  • Select specific fields to search, for example, title, author, abstract.

Narrow your search

Combine keywords with AND

  • internet AND privacy
  • cloning AND ethics
  • Sport AND nutrition

Use double quotes to find exact phrases

  • "global warming"
  • "genetic engineering"
  • "solar panels"

Exclude unwanted words with NOT 

  • psychology NOT developmental
  • Cloning NOT sheep
  • Mexico NOT "New Mexico"

Use Proximity Searching (N# and W#) to find words near each another

  • cloning n3 sheep (finds cloning of sheep and sheep cloning)
  • cloning w3 sheep (finds cloning of sheep but not sheep cloning)

N# - looks for the keywords in any order.

W# - looks for the keywords in the order you entered them.

Choose the right database

You will find a list of all our databases on our A-Z of Online Resources page. Not all databases are the same! The description below the title link for each database will tell you what subject and type of information can be found in that database.  

Broaden your search

Use ORs and brackets to find words with similar meanings

  • (man OR boy OR male)
  • (teenager OR adolescent)
  • (rubbish OR garbage OR litter)

Use Truncation to find words with different endings

  • child* (finds child, childs, children, childrens, childhood)
  • genetic* (finds genetic, genetics, genetically)
  • perform* (finds performs, performer, performances)

Use Wildcards to catch words with different spellings

  • wom!n  (finds woman and women)
  • Organi?ation (finds organization and organisation)
  • Colo#r   (finds color and colour)

Use Limiters

Most academic databases allow you to limit your results to just the type of content you need.   Some common limiters are: full text, peer-reviewed, publication date, content or source type  language and geography.  Limiters are usually displayed on the search results page in the form of check boxes or drop down menus. 

  • Tip: use limiters sparingly - too many limiters may bring back too few or no results.

Putting it all together

You are researching the link between video games and violent behaviour in teenagers.

You have identified the following keywords: video games,gaming, online gaming, violent, violence, aggression, bullying, anger, teenagers, adolescents, youth.

A potential database search is: ("video games" OR gaming) AND (aggression or violen*) AND (teenager* OR youth)