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SCI 120: A Watershed Year

Course guide for SCI 120

Strategic Exporation

Searching for information is often nonlinear and ongoing, requiring the evaluation of a number of information sources and the ability to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.

The act of searching often begins with a question that directs the act of finding needed information. Encompassing inquiry, discovery, and serendipity, searching identifies both possible relevant sources as well as the means to access those sources.

In order to search strategically:

  1. Identify interested parties such as scholars, organizations, governments, and industries who might produce information about a topic and determine how to access that information.
  2. Use different types of search strategies and language

Find Background Information

Search reference sources for background information on your topic to identify interested parties and different types of searching language. Recommended reference sources include:

Search Strategies

Combine search terms with boolean operators ( OR / AND / NOT )


Boolean Operator

Why you do it

Link keywords related to a single concept

Link different concepts Exclude certain search terms
What it does Linking with OR broadens a search (increases the number of results) by searching for any of the alternative keywords Linking with AND narrows a search (reduces the number of results) by retrieving only those records that include all of your specified keywords Using NOT narrows a search by excluding certain search terms
Example chocolate OR cacao chocolate AND health chocolate NOT candy


Use quotes to keep word order when searching for phrases

For phrase searching, place two or more words in "inverted commas" or "quote marks".

Example:   “chocolate chip cookies”

In some databases, words may be searched separately if the quote marks are not used. In other databases, word order may be maintained without the need for quote marks.

Use symbols to retrieve word variations




What it does An asterisk applied to the root of a word (truncation) captures other endings to that root word. A question mark applied in a word (wildcard) replaces one or more characters in the middle of a word.
Why you use it Useful for retrieving singular, plural and other variations of a keyword. Useful if word is spelled in different ways, but still has the same meaning.

child* will give you:

  • child
  • childs
  • children
  • childrens
  • childhood

wom?n will give you:

  • woman
  • women


Identity useful limits

Many databases provide many different types of articles. You can narrow your search with limits. Adding a limit to a search will exclude certain material not relevant to your research question, and therefore reduce the number of results.

Examples include:

  • limiting to English language
  • limiting by publication date
  • limiting to a specific document type
  • limiting your search to specific fields, such as only searching in the Title/Abstract fields

The use of limits should be justified by the focus of your research and any constraints.

Screenshot of OneSearch

Identify how the database categorizes information

Many databases use subject headings to organize content. These are generally selected from a controlled list by experienced people and describe what the article is about. 

A comprehensive search strategy is often best achieved by using a combination of keywords and subject headings where possible.

In-depth knowledge of subject headings is not required for users to benefit from improved search performance using them in their searches.

Advantages of subject searching:

  • Helps locate articles that use synonyms, variant spellings, plurals
  • Search terms don’t have to appear in the title or abstract

Note: Subject headings are often unique to a particular database, so you will need to look for appropriate subject headings in each database you intend to use.

Subject headings are not available for every topic, and it is best to only select them if they relate closely to your area of interest. 

Screenshot of Onesearch