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Literature search: 4. Search techniques

Overall guide for literature search

General search techniques

There are various search techniques to help you search more efficiently in the databases. Each database has its own search options. In many cases you can combine search terms with AND, OR and NOT, include different spellings by means of truncation/masking, and search for exact phrases.

Example: search terms and search techniques

Topic : Investigating people's behaviour on social media in South Africa

Keywords: social media, behaviour, South Africa

Search terms:

  • social media = social media, viral content, new media, social networking service, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blog …
  • behaviour = behaviour, behavior, functioning, reaction, operation, working, performance…
  • South Africa = South Africa, Republic of South Africa, Africa, Johannesburg, Cape Town…

You can combine your search terms with Boolean search operators and use other search technique, too.

("social media" OR facebook) AND (behavio?r) AND "South Africa"

Boolean operators

Combining multiple keywords in one search can be done with Boolean operators. Depending on the operator, it broadens or narrows your search results:


All terms must appear in the search results


One or both of the terms must appear in the search results


The term must not appear in the search results

Nesting terms

It can be more efficient to nest search terms
using brackets, especially during complex searches. These are used to retrieve a broad set of search results:

Keywords and Boolean logic


A wildcard, # or ? or $ (depending on the
database), can replace none or one letter in spelling variations. Wildcards maximize your search results:

This includes searches for behavior, behaviour.

Truncating words

Breaking off search terms is called truncating. The truncation mark replaces a part of the word in order to search for singular, plural or other endings of the term at the same time. Trunctation broadens your search:

This search includes gene, genes, genetics, generation.


Phrase searching

Double quotes around a phrase indicate that the specified search terms must follow each other in this exact order. Use phrase searching on established phrases only. It narrows your search and filters out irrelevant results:

Field searching

It is possible to search in different fields/index simultaneously such as title words and author name. By doing so, the search results will be fewer but more relevant:

Subject search

In some databases you can use subject headings to search for literature. Subject headings are terms pre-defined by academics or algorithms. Use these headings to find relevant literature on the same topic.

Proximity operators

Proximity operator Example Explanation
Some databases allow the use of proximity operators such as NEAR, PRE, WITHIN or AROUND to indicate that two search terms must appear near each other. See the following table for a few examples.



climate NEAR/15 environment The words "climate" and "environment" must appear within 15 words of each other.
PRE/n environment PRE/3 climate The word "environment" precedes the word "climate" by 3 or fewer words.



climate WITHIN/50 environment

The word "environment" must appear within 50 words of the word "climate".

Note: It does not matter in which order the words appear.

AROUND/n environment AROUND(15) climate The words "environment" and "climate" must appear within 15 words of each other.