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      Searching: tips and strategies

      An important part of your work as a student is to find relevant sources for the work you must do. To succeed, you will need to do searches in various databases. To do this in a good way, there are different search strategies and tips to help you.

      Search tips

      Use LibSearch (external link) to look up a book. Enter words from the title and/or the author in the search field. If the book is available, you will see where in the library it is located by shelf. If a book has one or more editors or more than three authors, the book’s title will be the main entry, i.e. what the book is shelved according to. If the book is out on loan, it can be reserved by logging in to your library account or contacting the information desk.

      If the book is course literature, it will be marked as course literature under the shelving details. Course literature cannot be lent out, and can only be read in the library. More information about course literature.

      If the book is not available in the Skövde University Library, try searching for it in LIBRIS (external link). This is a joint catalogue for Swedish libraries. In most cases, books listed in LIBRIS are available as interlibrary loans. These can then be requested and sent to the Skövde University Library. You can also suggest books for the library to purchase.

      To read e-books, log in using the same login details as for e.g. your student e-mail or Canvas.

      Search for the article title in LibSearch (external link). If the library has a subscription to the journal, you will find the article.

      You can also search for a journal via the library’s list of journal (external link). Search for the full name of the journal (not the name of the article) or the ISSN and then look up the appropriate year, volume and issue on the journal’s website.

      Certain journals are held in printed form in the library. This will be detailed in the list of journals. Articles from printed journals can only be copied, the journals cannot be lent out.

      Searching for information step by step


      On the library’s homepage, there is LibSearch where you can search in most of the library’s databases at the same time. Therefore, it’s a good place to start searching if you are not sure what you are looking for. In LibSearch the material has a page with information about the material, so-called detailed record, which helps you as a student when you must judge its scientific validity.

      List of databases

      If you know what type of material you are looking for, for example, scientific articles and within a specific subject, then use the library’s database list. In the database list, you can filter for relevant databases based on the subject and type of material, e.g., scientific articles.

      Google Scholar

      If instead you decide to use Google or Google Scholar (external link), you must realise that this demands more of you as a student to judge the material you find in terms of scientific quality and type of material. In Google Scholar you will find many different types of material, everything from student essays to scientific articles and you will need to judge which is which.

      Finding good search terms is a challenge. Use your research question or assignment as a point of departure to identify key concepts.

      Consider the following:

      • Translate your key concepts into English, using NE’s ordböcker (external link), for example
      • Are there any synonyms?
      • Are there any short forms?
      • Are there more narrow or more general concepts?
      • British or American spelling

      One of the best ways to find relevant search terms is by test searching using them in different databases. Do you find relevant documents in the hit list? Investigate to see which subject headings/descriptors these articles are tagged with. Not all databases tag their material or collect these tags in subject headings lists, so-called thesaurus.

      There are some basic search strategies that are good to know, and which work in most databases.


      Truncation is a search technique that increases the results, and which allows you to search using different endings of words by putting an asterisk after the word stem or the first part of the word. Some databases use other symbols for truncation; if you are uncertain, look at the guidelines in the databases.

      An example of truncation with an asterisk: learn* This will generate learning, learner, learners etc.

      Searching for a phrase

      Another search technique is phrase searching. Phrase searching will create fewer but more relevant hits. With phrase searching you will retrieve documents with the precise word order and not the specific words individually spread out in the text.

      An example of phrase searching: “public health”

      Note that words that are often compounds in Swedish are two separate words in English, for example, folkhälsa which is public health in English. Therefore, it can be useful to use phrase searching for these concepts.

      Searching using Boolean Logic

      The Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT. They are useful when you want to combine different search terms or concepts. In certain Swedish databases, the operators OCH, ELLER and INTE are used.

      AND is used to combine two or more search terms. In many databases AND is standard; if you do not include an operator, the database will search with AND between the search terms. The more search terms with AND between them, the fewer hits you will get.

      An example of a search with AND: child AND diabetes

      OR between the search terms will generate hits where both or only one word exists. If you search with OR then the number of hits will increase. The OR-operator is useful when you search with various synonyms.

      An example of a search with OR: student OR pupil

      When various commands are combined, it is important to consider the order in which they should apply. This can often be regulated with the help of brackets. Here follow some usual examples where AND is the primary operator which combines searches in which the OR operator is included:

      Diabetes AND (children OR adolescents OR teenagers)

      NOT excludes hits from the search results. In which case, you type NOT before the term you do not want to be included in the search results.

      There are exceptions concerning how the Boolean operators work, for example, AND NOT are used in Scopus instead of NOT. In the guidelines in the databases, you can read more about how the Boolean operators are used in each database.

      An example of a search with NOT: cats NOT dogs

      It is a good idea to type the Boolean operators using capital letters for clarity and readability.

      Different search strategies generate different results. If you are writing a literature review and aim to include all the material within a subject, then the most relevant search strategy is searching in blocks. If, on the other hand, you want to narrow down and search more specifically, then it is best to do a subject headings search, field search, chain search or citation search.

      Field search

      One way to make your search more precise is to only search in certain record fields, so-called field searching.

      An article record contains collected information about the material in the database in different fields. If you are looking for a specific author, you can choose to make your search more precise by only searching in the author field.

      A common way to increase the relevance of the retrieved documents is to search in the title field. As the title should describe the content of the article, this entails that the article is highly relevant if your search term is included in the title.

      Subject headings search

      Subject headings search is a narrow search with high relevance. You use special search terms, so-called subject headings in the subject term field in the article record. Subject headings can be obtained from a special list in the database, a so-called thesaurus.

      Subject headings (descriptors) are terms that the database supplier has chosen to describe the content of an article. Those who tag the articles cannot freely choose terms but must choose from a special list in the database. This entails that the same terms are consistently used to describe the same thing. When you then do a subject headings search with the terms, you will get all the articles on this phenomenon because all the articles have been tagged with the same term.

      You can also use terms from the thesaurus to do a free text search, i.e., searching in all fields in the article record, for example, the title and abstract. This means you do a more comprehensive search as you are searching for the terms in several fields, but some of the hits will have low relevance.

      Block searching

      Block searching is a search method which is good when you are searching in an exhaustive and structured way.

      When you have identified the different parts of your search question, you can divide them into separate search blocks. In each search block, you combine different keywords and subject terms using OR, for example words from a thesaurus and synonyms. You then combine your different search blocks with AND.

      As each aspect of your search is a block of its own, you can easily adjust your search by either adding or removing terms.

      Example of block search, how it is structured, and what it can look like (Lund University).

      Chain searching and citation searching

      Chain searching and citation searching are similar in that your point of departure is an already known article you use to find other relevant sources. The difference is that in chain searching you look at the article’s list of references and previous research, whereas in citation searches you investigate how much the article has been cited by other studies, later research.

      Citation searches are only possible in certain databases, for example, Web of Science and Scopus, on condition that the article you are using is indexed in these databases. It is also possible to do citation searches in Google Scholar.

      If you get too many hits, then the search must be limited by either adding more search terms or by making the search terms more specific. You can also try another search technique known as a searching for a phrase. You will find this procedure in the section entitled “How do I search?”. You can also consider trying, for example, field searching or subject headings searching. See the section entitled “Different search strategies for different results”.

      If you include too many terms from the start, it may generate only a few documents. You can then try removing some of the terms. When it comes to previous research sections in an essay or thesis, remember that all articles cannot illustrate all aspects of your subject and that it is your job to compile them to a unit. It can, therefore, be worth testing with two concepts at a time in different combinations.

      You can also try truncation as a search technique to search using various suffixes of a word. Read more in the section called “How do I search?”.

      Also consider if there are more general overriding terms or synonyms you can use for your search. You can search using several synonyms at the same time by using the operator OR. You will find more information about this in the section “How do I search?”.

      You can also try chain searching and citation searching, if you have found an article that you think is relevant. You will find more information in the section “Different searching strategies for different results”.

      Characteristics of a structured literature review

      A systematic literature review is a specific research method that follows certain defined steps. When it comes to literature reviews for student theses, it's better to talk about a structured search since a systematic literature review requires more than what is feasible within the scope of a thesis.

      A structured search is characterised by having a deliberate strategy for how you search; which keywords you use, how you combine the words, and in which fields you search, as well as where you search; which different databases you use.

      Do a test search first

      Before you fully decide on the subject and limitations, you need to test search to ensure that the hit list becomes large enough within the area you are interested in. If the number of hits is too small, it will be difficult to find enough articles that match the inclusion and exclusion criteria.

      Find relevant search terms and databases

      After you have done a test search and formulated your research question, you need to continue finding relevant search terms and subject headings to build your search. In the section Different search strategies for different results on this page, you can read about block searching, a way to divide your research question into different parts to more easily create the type of search strings needed to make a structured search.

      To find as much relevant material as possible when searching, it is often not enough to search in only one database since different databases cover different types of material. Therefore, you may need to search in a couple or several different databases.

      Structured literature review as part of your method

      When the structured search is part of your method, you need to carefully document how you searched and which databases you used.

      At the Karolinska Institute's website, you can read about the different steps you need to go through when using structured searching as part of your method. The library provides guidance on the part related to literature search but not within the other parts of the method.

      How to manage your search results

      An essential and time-consuming part of your search is going through your hit list. One way of making it more efficient is to filter the hit list by, for example, the year of publication, language and type of material.

      When you filter your hit list, think about what results the different options will give you. Avoid filtering for full text because this will only give you the articles available in the specific database you are searching. The library may well have access to the articles through another subscription.

      In many databases there are different functions to manage your search results. For example:

      • An account where you can save your searches and articles, so that you can access them later.
      • Send an e-mail with the article information or a search string.
      • Download the article if it is available in full text.

      It is essential to study your hit list carefully in order to find what material is relevant before you start reading the articles more thoroughly.

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      Published: 2/5/2020
      Edited: 7/21/2020