Library Quick Start

Basic search strategies, step by step

Search Strategy: Step by Step

Search is an iterative process. Most likely, you will need to modify your strategy a few times based on your search results and where you are searching.

1. Summarize your topic

2. Identify concepts, and translate into keywords

3. Construct your search statement

4. Identify places to search

5. Evaluate your results

6. Keep thorough notes

7. Modify your search as needed

1. Summarize your topic

Write one or two sentences summarizing your search topic. It can be helpful to state your topic in the form of a question you want to answer.

2. Identify concepts, and translate into search terms


  • Unique terms: PTSD
  • Exact phrases: "global warming"
  • Synonyms: (education OR training)  (woman OR women OR female)
  • Multiple meanings: cloud, virus
  • Word stems: lead* finds leads, leader, leadership
    Usually (*) but sometimes (!). Check the Search Help within the database.
  • Different spellings: defen*e finds defense or defence
    ​Usually (*) but sometimes (?). Check the Search Help within the database.
  • Terms to exclude: NOT security excludes the term, security
  • Broader or narrower terms in case you get too few or too many results (geographic, date range, etc.)

3. Construct your search statement


You will most likely modify these repeatedly as you learn what works and what doesn’t. Remember to look for Advanced Search features and filtering too!

Use AND, OR, NOT operators as needed in ALL CAPS.

  • OR: found item will have either of the terms
    Surround the terms with parentheses.

  • AND: found item must have both terms
    Nowadays, no need to type it. It’s usually assumed, or it’s built into the search drop down menus.

  • NOT: found item will only have the first term
    Surround the terms with parentheses.

Boolean diagram

Example Search Statement
  Concept 1 military
AND Concept 2 (ethics OR morals)
AND Concept 3 (education OR training)
AND Concept 4 lead*

4. Identify places to search

5. Evaluate your results

Helpful guidelines for evaluating information, especially if it doesn't come from a library database.

6. Keep thorough notes

Where you looked, new terms you discovered, what search strategies worked/didn't work, etc.

Example Notes
Date Database/Source Search String Useful? Y/N/Comments

7. Modify your search as needed


Search is an iterative process. Modify your search strategy as needed.

Get the quick guide to literature reviews

Quick guide to literature reviews

Ways to Approach the Research Process and Refine Your Search Results

You can approach the research process in a couple of different ways: pearl growing or onion peeling. We recommend both. Avoid cherry picking.

Pearl Growing Onion Peeling Cherry Picking
pearl onion cherries

Like the accumulating layers of a pearl, when you have one or a few highly relevant sources, you can leverage it to find more relevant items. Look for:

  • a "cited by" link
  • a list of references
  • keywords or descriptors
  • a related items list
Like peeling back the layers of an onion, when you have a large results set, you can use filters to remove irrelevant items from your list.

Like picking ripe cherries from a tree, you may be tempted to only select sources that support your thesis, ignoring those that may contradict your claim. 

Resist this temptation because then your literature review may be unbalanced, and you may overlook gaps in the body of knowledge or areas where your research would have the most impact.