Search Tips

Here are our Top 10 Search Tips!

1. Use AND to combine keywords and phrases when searching the electronic databases for journal articles.


china and film and history
veterans and pensions and legislation
united states and foreign policy

Unlike in Google and in other search engines, you will not get satisfactory results if you type an entire sentence, such as "the effect of advertising in mass media on teenage consumers." You need to pick out the key phrases, words, and concepts. For example:

advertising and mass media and teenagers and consumers

If you type several words without AND in between, most of our databases (including NuCat, the library catalog) will assume you want only items where those words appear right next to each other, and in that exact order.

2. Use truncation (an asterisk) and wildcards (usually a question mark or exclamation point).


child* and education
globali?ation and analysis

Child* brings up child, children, childhood, and any other word that starts with the root "child." This works in most of the databases.

Globali?ation brings up items with the words globalization or globalisation.

If you don't use truncation and wildcards, most databases will look for an exact match to the words you type, and you may miss some relevant materials.


" If you shorten the root word too much, you will bring up irrelevant items (soc* will bring up society and social and socioeconomic, but also Socrates).
" In NuCat, a word with one asterisk means the root word plus 5 characters. To look for an unlimited number of characters after the root, use a double asterisk (envir** to pull up environs, environment, environmental).

3. Find out if the database you're using has a "subject search" option.


In Medline, click on MESH.
In Ethnic Newswatch, click on Browse Topics
In Expanded Academic Index, go to Subject Guide.
In America: History and Life, go to Advanced Search, then Subject Terms,
and click on the Browse (magnifying glass) icon to see a list of available subjects.
In Business Source Premier, click on Thesaurus.

For some topics, subject searching works better than keyword searching,
which is usually the default.

This may bring up fewer results, but you'll be searching with more precision.

Use the results of a keyword search to discover subject headings (descriptors) used in the database. Usually, they will appear at the bottom of the article or somewhere in the citation. For example, by doing a keyword search for "girls and prostitution" you will discover that Expanded Academic Index uses the subject term "Prostitution, Juvenile."

4. Use your imagination

Think of all the possible ways to express your topic. Brainstorm until you've exhausted all possibilities. An article about global warming may not have the phrase "global warming" anywhere in it. Instead, you may find that the author has used the phrase "climate change" and a cataloger has assigned it the subject heading "climatic changes."

You will pull up more relevant articles by combining synonyms or related words with the word OR inside parentheses.


(AIDS or HIV) and (television or movies or motion pictures)
(teen* or adolescen*) and (girl* or female) and aggression

5. Approach your research like a detective, looking for clues in all that you discover.

As you begin to find information, keep an eye out for the "big names" in your research area-for example, key people and organizations. Notice the names of people who are often quoted in the news; scholars who are doing research on your topic and the universities with which they are affiliated; activists and leaders working on a political or social issue; spokespersons and influential figures. Then, search for books and articles written by them. If a person has spoken at a conference, find out if the conference proceedings are available (on a web site, or in our library, or via interlibrary loan). Check the bibliographies and footnotes in the books and articles you come across, and see if our library holds the materials cited by them. Find out if there is a local or national organization related to your topic. See what information is available on its web site. You might contact the organization by phone or email to find out what information they provide to the public, and whether they have staff that can assist you in getting more information. Municipal, state, and federal government web sites tend to post a lot of valuable information, including statistics and reports.

6. Browse the stacks on the 3rd and 4th floors in your subject area ...

but don't forget to search NuCat for other materials.

For example: most books on education are in the L section. However, materials on education in the sciences will be classified under science (Q), education and psychology under psychology (BF), and religious education under religion (BL and BS).

How do you know which subjects correspond to which letters? Check this list:

Browsing is a great way to get familiar with the collections, but searching the library catalog (NuCat) and getting the exact call number and location is almost always the most efficient way to find books on your topic or books by a particular author.

7. When searching for books (in NuCat), use broader terms than when searching for articles (in databases).

Example: instead of Title IX, try Sex discrimination in education

Subjects and keywords in NuCat usually describe what the whole book is about--the main topics, not every topic covered. In the article databases, the subjects will describe what the article or chapter of a book is about. This means you can sometimes do the "needle in a haystack" searches in the article databases. That kind of search rarely works as well in the library catalog.

8. Don't limit yourself to just one database or one set of search results.

Search a database that covers many subjects (e.g., Expanded Academic Index or Ingenta) as well as a subject-specialized database (e.g., ComAbstracts for communications, MLA Bibliography for literature). The same search phrase entered in two different databases may bring up very different results. If your topic encompasses more than one major subject area-business and art, for example- try searching both a business database and an art database. Ask at the reference desk for our recommendations. Try different phrases; try the same search across multiple databases. Don't be content with the results of one search.

9. Don't discount non full-text databases.

If you're doing anything beyond superficial research, don't avoid using a database just because it doesn't have any full text; it may be the most comprehensive index for your topic. You'll be able to get the citation and abstract (summary); the article may be available in print in the journal stacks in our library. Search both the full-text databases and the abstracts-only databases to get the best view of what is available. If you find a citation and don't see the full text in the database, search the ejournals list for the journal title, to see if the article is available to you electronically, as a Northeastern affiliate.

You may want to start with a database that contains some full text, but don't let your search stop there.

(For more information on how to locate full text articles in print or electronic form, see our library's online tutorial section called Locating Full Text.)

10. And of course, ask a reference librarian if you have questions!

Don't spin your wheels and waste a lot of time if you get stuck or encounter something confusing. A reference librarian can save you time and help you find better information, more efficiently. For example, we can suggest a couple of the best databases for your topic. We can show you the most efficient way to search for articles by a particular author (HINT: usually not by keyword searching). We can advise you on search strategies and techniques tailored to your topic.

Also, the librarian can provide referrals to other sources and collections outside Northeastern University. We may know that there is a good collection of local history materials on your topic at the Boston Public Library. We can tell you which other libraries in the Boston area hold the medical journal you're seeking. Suppose you are doing research on advertising-we could tell you, for example, that the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe is a good place to find popular women's magazines, such as Seventeen and Good Housekeeping, going back to the 1940s or earlier.

If a quick stop at the reference desk is not sufficient for your needs, it is possible to set up a time for a research consultation with a subject specialist librarian.

View a list of Subject Specialists.

For more assistance, contact a librarian.


The following keyword searches may be helpful as a starting place for your research. These phrases are used in Expanded Academic Index and would be useful in some other databases as well.

[your topic] and psychological aspects
[your topic] and political aspects
[your topic] and religious aspects
[your topic] and personal narratives
[your topic] and public opinion
[your topic] and (laws or regulations)
[your topic] and statistical data
[your topic] and social policy
[your topic] and interviews
[your topic] and crimes against
[your topic] and health aspects

Created by Kathy Herrlich, Research and Instruction Department

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