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Social Sciences: Search Tips & Tutorials

This guide is intended for all those studying social science and related disciplines.

Smart searching involves using basic search strategies to effectively and efficiently search the library’s online databases. Searching Google may be a breeze, but the content isn’t always reliable and the vast number of results can be overwhelming! 

While most of the strategies on this page can be used whether you are searching within a search engine, such as Google, they are particularly important when searching within academic or library databases. Watch this video on Refining Search Results to learn more, and check out the tabs below for search strategies you can use in your research!

Search Tips

What are keywords?

Keywords or search terms are necessary when searching library databases.  Whereas you can type an entire sentence into Google and still get thousands of results, a library database will likely return you zero!  Instead you must use keywords or specific search terms in order to retrieve the best results.

Keyword cloud

There are two main steps to identifying keywords. Take a look at the following example.

Example Research Question: Should college athletes get paid?


Step 1. Identify the main concepts in your research question.

These are often the who, what, where, when, why words in your topic.

Main concepts: college, athletes, and paid


Step 2. Make a list of keywords or search terms that you can use based off of your main concepts.

These are often synonyms, or different words that mean the same thing. Since you are searching in an academic database, which contains a high percentage of scholarly content (information written by experts for experts), consider how your instructor or another expert might describe the topic. Are there any technical terms that you might not be aware of? (For example, heart attacks are often called myocardial infarction in academic writing.) Another way to determine good keyword is to look at the vocabulary authors are using in a good article you find and use similar terms in your search.

Keywords for college: college, collegiate, university, post secondary, school, etc.

Athletes: athletes, athletics, sports, players, football players, basketball players, etc.

Paid: paid, pay, compensation, scholarships, stipend, etc.


Bonus Tip: Use Subject Headings

Some databases will also have a Thesaurus or Subject Heading feature, such as the nursing database CINAHL. Think of subject headings as the official hashtags of an article. Subject headings are assigned to articles based on their content and can be used effectively to find subject-specific results. In some databases, you can enter a search term and check the Suggest Subject Terms box, or similar, in order to get recommended official search terms.

Once you have identified your keywords, you can begin to enter your search terms into the search box(es). Since you usually have multiple concepts that you want to include (ex. college, athletes, and paid), you can use Boolean operators to connect them.

Boolean Operators, the words AND, OR, and NOT, are used to connect and define the relationship between your keywords and main concepts.  Using Boolean operators in a search will help to narrow or expand your search results. See the image below for how you can use Boolean operators while searching.

Explains boolean operators AND, OR, NOT

There are several other search strategies that you can use to narrow or expand your search results. These may work slightly differently depending on the database you are searching, but the most consistent strategies are given below.  

If you have any questions about using these or any other of the search strategies discussed on this page during your research, meet with a librarian.

quotation marks

Quotations

Quotations are used to combine keywords into a keyword phrase. This is particularly useful in narrowing down your results. By putting quotes around two or more words, they will have to appear in the exact sequence within your results.

Ex. “college athletes” will return results that use that exact phrase and don't contain only the words college or athletes.  These words may still appear separately in the article, in addition to appearing as the phrase.

 

asterisk

Truncation

Truncation uses an asterisk (*) to leave a word open to variant endings. Putting an asterisk at the end of a root word will retrieve all forms of that word. 

Ex. pa* will return results that include both pay, paid, and any other pa___ words.

 

question mark

Wildcards

Question Mark Wildcard

The question mark (?) wildcard is used to replace an unknown character within a word.  The database will return all words with the ? replaced by a letter.

Ex. wom?n will return results for both woman and women.

 

hashtag symbol

Pound/Hash Symbol Wildcard

Similar to the question mark wildcard, the pound or hash symbol # wildcard is used when there are alternative spellings of a word. The database will return results with all words with or without the additional letter. Note that some databases will do this automatically, however, some results may be excluded.

Ex. colo#r will return results for color and colour.

Note: Truncation and wildcards cannot be combined in one word.

 

google search box

Google Search

There are also a series of Google specific search strategies you can use to limit domain types (.com, .edu, .gov, etc.), find similar sites to those you already know, and more! Check out this page for more information on searching in Google.