Graduate Research

Lesson 3: Search Strategies

3.1 Advanced Search Strategies

As a graduate student, chances are you’re pretty adept at searching online for resources. But tools are always changing, and there’s always room to learn something new—especially if it means you can find what you need more quickly! Below, you’ll learn about search strategies you can apply regardless of your discipline or chosen database.


Many databases, especially in “advanced search” tools, utilize something called boolean operators to combine search terms. Boolean operators include the words:

  • AND
  • OR
  • NOT

These terms do exactly what they suggest. AND combines two terms or phrases so that only items that contain both terms or phrases are returned in the search results. OR combines two terms or phrases as well but will return results that contain one term, or the other, or both. Finally, NOT excludes any items that contain the search term or phrase that follows it.

For example, a search for:

  • Katherine Johnson
  • AND NASA OR Orbital Mechanics
  • NOT “Hidden Figures”

would return results that contain the terms/phrases:

  • Katherine Johnson AND NASA
  • Katherine Johnson AND Orbital Mechanics
  • Katherine Johnson AND NASA AND Orbital Mechanics

It would not return any articles that contained the phrase “Hidden Figures.”

Truncation and Quotation Marks

Two other simple search strategies you might find helpful are quotation marks and truncation. If you want to search for an exact phrase, put the words inside quotation marks. For example, a search for the phrase:

  • "George Washington Carver"

would prevent you from retrieving articles about George Washington, the first president of the United States, and instead ensure that articles retrieved were about George Washington Carver, the American botanist and inventor.

Finally, truncation uses the asterisk symbol (*) to serve as a replacement for a letter or group of letters. Truncation is especially helpful when a word can have several different suffixes, and you would like to retrieve all items that contain any variation of the word. For example, by searching for the term:

  • econom*

You would retrieve results that contain the words:

  • economy
  • economics
  • economies
  • economist
  • economical
  • econometrics

And so on. The truncation tool can also work within a word. For example, searching for Latin*s would retrieve results that include the words Latinas, Latinos, and Latin@s. Boolean operators, quotations, and truncation work in nearly every database, including many search engines, so don’t be afraid to try them.

Database Limiters

Most databases will provide ways to limit your search results (called “limiters”), and in most database interfaces, these limiting options will appear on the left-hand side of your screen next to your search results. Common ways to limit your results include:

  • Date published
  • “Scholarly” or “Peer-reviewed”
  • Source types (e.g. journal, magazine, newspaper, multimedia)
  • Location—both the source location and topic location
  • Subject—more on this below!
  • Language

Some databases will also provide advanced search options to limit your search results based on discipline-specific criteria, such as characteristics of the population studied (e.g. infancy), the type of methodology used (e.g. clinical trial), or the source of funding for a study (e.g. federal grants).

Subject Terms

Within many discipline-specific databases, you will also find a subject keyword or thesaurus tool. These keyword tools allow you to explore the specialized vocabulary that has been used to categorize and “tag” each article depending on the topic addressed. In the medical database PubMed, this tool is called MeSH (Medical Subject Headings). Searching MeSH for a term used in everyday language, like “cancer,” reveals that the database actually uses a specialized keyword or heading, “neoplasm,” and this heading is in turn broken down into subheadings. By searching for “neoplasm” instead of “cancer,” or by searching for one of the subheadings, you are more likely to find the information you’re looking for. As you get to know the databases for your areas of study, explore options for doing advanced searches, and see if there are subject keyword tools you can use to conduct more comprehensive searches.

Check your understanding

Which is the best search strategy to use to make sure you only receive articles on Civil Rights Activist Yuri Kochiyama?

  1. "Yuri Kochiyama"
  2. Yuri AND Kochiyama
  3. Yuri Kochiyama*

The correct answer is: "Yuri Kochiyama" - This would only bring back articles that have her name in this exact order.

3.2 FindIt and Accessing full text

Once you’ve found an article that you would like to read, you’ll need to access the full text. Sometimes, the full text of an article is available in the database as either a PDF or HTML file. In this case, just look for the Adobe PDF symbol or a link/button that says “full text.” Sometimes, however, a database will “index” an article—meaning it will list the title, author, publishing information, and abstract—but the full text of the article will not be accessible. If you don’t see a link to the full text of the article, look for the FindIt button. FindIt button Clicking this button will open a new page that will show you a list of databases the UW-Madison Libraries subscribe to that do provide access to the article. If we don’t have access to the article, you will also see a link to Request A Copy. Selecting this link will automatically fill out an Interlibrary Loan request for you with all of the article’s information.

For more information about requesting items through Interlibrary Loan, see Library Services for Electronic Resources (lesson 5).

Check your understanding

True or False: If you find an article in a database that UW-Madison Libraries do not provide access to, you will have to pay to access it.

False. You can place a request for the article and we will send you a copy for free.

3.3 Tools for Tracking Research

In many disciplines, the importance of a particular research study is measured at least in part by the number of people who read, use, or cite the publication. Citation and bibliometric tools can help researchers to determine the impact of a particular paper or book by analyzing the number of times a publication has been read or downloaded, as well as cited, and by whom. Knowing which articles, authors, and journals have a high impact within a given field can be helpful to determine where scholarly conversations are happening, whose voices are valued, and to decide where you might want to publish your own research. Many databases now include tools to track citation data right within their search results (e.g. Web of Science and SCOPUS), and these tools can also be used to find related articles.

Because the impact of your research can have important implications for your work as a member of a scholarly community—it can even impact funding, as some grants require data on a study’s impact—it’s important that you get credit for the research you produce. If your name has ever changed, or if there are cultural differences in surname placement in journals you publish in, it’s possible that tools that measure impact will not correctly collate all of your publications together. For that reason, among others, you might consider signing up for a unique researcher ID, such as ORCID. Unique researcher IDs help ensure that all of your publications are associated with you and can speed up the process of entering publication information into a variety of websites and professional apps. Regardless of which tools you use, keeping track of scholarly publications—both yours and other researchers in your field—is a good idea.

3.4 Interdisciplinary Strategies

Although it can be helpful to begin your search within a database that is most closely related to your research, don’t be afraid to explore databases from other subjects as well. Many research topics these days are highly interdisciplinary, and therefore, it’s important to consider how research from many different fields might inform the topic. For example, while researching interpretations of art or literature, it might be helpful to explore research in psychology. For research in biochemistry, you might consider exploring social or environmental implications.

The way databases are organized on the UW-Madison Libraries' website makes it easy to explore published research, even if you are unfamiliar with the field. On the Libraries' homepage, simply choose Databases from the main search box drop-down menu, and then choose Browse by Subject/Type. Once you’ve chosen a subject, a list of “Core” databases will appear at the top of a list of resources. If you’re not sure where to start, start with these. You might also find additional categories of databases, different types of media, and “Also Helpful” resources listed here. Explore broadly! And if you need help getting started, contact the librarian(s) listed under Subject Assistance on the right side of the page. They would be happy to help you find the resources you need.


Test your knowledge of advanced search strategies by answering the three questions below. Complete the Lesson 3 Quiz before moving on to Lesson 4: Evaluation.

Question 1

You discover a source integral to your research question in the database Scopus: What search strategies would allow you to discover more sources in the scholarly conversation that were impacted by this source? Select all that apply.

View the citation metrics to determine what articles have cited the original source.

Use the same official database subject keywords the author used in your search string.

Search additional related terms you find in the abstract.

Apply a date limit to only prior to the publication of this source.

The correct answer is "View the citation metrics to determine what articles have cited the original source", "Use the same official database subject keywords the author used in your search string", and "Search additional related terms you find in the abstract".

You can find more sources by viewing citation metrics, using official database subject keywords, or searching related terms found in the article. However, if you were to apply a date limit to find sources that were impacted by this article you would set it to post the publication date of the article.

Question 2

You are trying to find Newspaper articles about the stock market crash from the Great Depression Era of the United States. You entered the search “Great Depression” AND “Stock Market” and received 850,000 search results. What database limiters could you use to narrow and refine this search for Newspaper articles? Select all that apply.

Set the Date Published limiter to 1929-1939

Set the Source Type to Newspapers

Set the location to United States

Select the Peer-Reviewed option

The correct answer is "Set the Date Published limiter to 1929-1939","Set the Source Type to Newspapers", and "Set the location to United States".

To help you locate Newspaper articles on your topic you could employ the following search strategies: set the date published limiter, set the source type, and set the location. You would not want to select peer-review since this is referring to the process of peer-review in scholarly journals.

Question 3

You are looking for sources about Elle Baker, who also went by the nickname Fundi. She was a Civil Rights Activist, worked with the NAACP, and many other organizations. Which search string would not help you find sources about Elle Baker? Select all that apply.

"Elle Baker" OR Fundi AND NAACP OR "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People"

Elle Baker AND Fundi AND NAACP

Fundi AND NAACP OR Civil Rights

"Elle Baker" OR Fundi AND Activis* AND "Civil Rights"

The correct answer is:

  • “Elle Baker” OR Fundi AND NAACP OR “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People”
  • “Elle Baker” OR Fundi AND Activis* AND “Civil Rights”

You can find sources about Elle Baker by using the above search strings. In the other two options there are mistakes in the strings that would impact your ability to receive articles about Elle Baker, such as her name is not in quotations and incorrectly using the Boolean operators AND / OR.