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Learn to manage research assignments from start to finish, avoid plagiarism, evaluate outside sources, and improve your writing.


Keywords are specific terms or phrases that represent the main concepts of your research topic. All kinds of searches in all kinds of databases rely on keywords, so it's essential to be able to select and combine them. A good rule of thumb? Imagine the result you want to find, then brainstorm the terms it's likely to use – for example, to find more serious or scholarly content, use formal language rather than slang.

Constructing searches

AND narrows a search

  • Results must contain both terms
  • technology AND literacy
  • slavery AND women
  • twain AND criticism

OR broadens a search

  • Results must contain at least one term
  • sex OR gender
  • jail OR prison
  • jobs OR careers OR occupations

NOT excludes a term

  • Results cannot include the following term
  • java NOT coffee
  • radiation NOT cancer
  • Web search engines may use a hyphen, as in jfk -airport

Parentheses ( ) nest operations

  • Enclosed operations are processed first – think order of operations from math class
  • (creationism OR "intelligent design") AND teaching
  • "solar power" OR (green AND energy)

Quotation marks " " keep phrases together

  • Results must contain exact terms in given order
  • "fossil fuels"
  • "amy tan"
  • "tyranny of the majority"

Truncation symbols like * indicate root words

  • Results can include any variation on root
  • histor* = history, histories, historical, historicity
  • cinem* = cinema, cinemas, cinematic, cinematography
  • Some databases may use a different symbol, as in sociol$ – check the help docs

Wildcard symbols allow unknown characters

  • Results include spelling variants
  • wom?n = woman, women, womyn
  • mcl?ughl?n = mcloughlin, mclaughlin, mclaughlan


Troubleshooting searches

Problem: "I get too many results."

Solution: Make your search query more specific.

If you want information about Benjamin Franklin's life, search for "benjamin franklin" instead of franklin (since results about cities, colleges, or companies called "Franklin" aren't going to help you). To narrow it down even further, try adding biograph* (to find "biographies" or "biographical" info about Benjamin Franklin).

Problem: "There's no information on my topic."

Solution: Broaden your search.

First, check your search query for typos. If there aren't any, your terms might be too specific. For instance, "north carolina" and immigration and ("18th century" or 1700s) is probably a more effective search than new immigrants wilmington 1765. Why? Because sources about NC immigration in the 18th century will include information about people moving to Wilmington in 1765, but the more specific search would miss valuable results about trends in the eastern NC region or a population spike in 1766.

Problem: "I can't find the answer to my research question."

Solution: Focus your search on the information you need.

When trying to answer a research question, your objective is to combine information from various sources to make your point, not to find the answer already written for you. So instead of how does hip hop dance affect heart rate?, try dance and health or aerobic activity and (heart or cardiac).

Breaking down topics

The more precise your keywords, the more relevant your results will be. The following table provides two example topics and some associated keywords. (Use quotation marks to search for phrases.)

General topic

Related keywords & concepts

unemployment Synonyms: unemployed, jobless, joblessness
Statistics: "unemployment rate"
Similar concept: underemployment, underemployed
Programs: "unemployment insurance", "unemployment benefits", "unemployment claims", "99 weeks"
Policy: "social insurance", welfare, entitlements
Causes: "structural unemployment", "technological unemployment", outsourcing, disability
Counters: "job creation", "job growth", hiring, insourcing
Related: "working poor", "real wages", "minimum wage"
abstinence-only Synonyms: "abstinence-only education", "abstinence education"
Alternatives: "sex education", "sex ed", "comprehensive sex education"
Concerns: "safe sex", contraception, "birth control", "teenage pregnancy, "teen pregnancy", "teen moms", "sexually transmitted infections", STIs, STDs
Policy: "federal funding", "state funding", "faith-based", "curriculum standards"
Related: "virginity pledge", "purity ring", "purity ball"

For controversial topics, use varied search terms to find views from all sides of a debate:

If you're searching… Try this, too:
"illegal aliens" "undocumented immigrants"
"internet piracy" "file sharing"
"second amendment" "gun violence"
deforestation logging
"marriage equality" "traditional marriage"
"pro-life" "pro-choice"
"pro-abortion" "anti-choice"

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