ENG 112 : Research Writing (Oness)


Choose Search Terms

Key Concepts

Identify the key concepts of your topic and enter just those terms (not the full sentences) into the search box. For example, if you are investigating the current state of Internet communciations, and whether these communications are gender-neutral and inclusive, your key concepts will be: Internet, communications, gender, gender-neutral.


Consider Synonyms, Broader Terms, Narrower Terms, and Related Terms: 

For example, for a search on Internet communications consider the following: "social networks", "online journaling", "social media", "online comments". Then to narrow the terms even more, you could narrow the search terms to a particular type of social media, such as Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Blogs, etc.


Subject Headings: 

Articles are assigned subject headings. Use these as keywords to broaden or narrow your results. In many of the library's databases, you will find the list of assigned subject headings (sometimes called descriptors) in the record for the article. See the below image as an example of where you can find the subject headings: 

Some databases offer a thesaurus that lists related subject headings. Usually, you can find a link to this list near the top of the page.


Phrase Searching:

To find an exact phrase, use double quotes, such as "social media" or "Malcolm X".

Combine Search Terms

Boolean Operators 

Boolean Operators are words (AND, OR, NOT) that combine or exclude keywords in a search.  Of course you will want to use Education related keywords. This example illustrates how to include or remove subjects with keywords.


AND narrows your search

  • "Malcolm X" AND biography finds resources with both terms

OR broadens your search

  • "Malcom X" OR literarcy finds resources with either term or both terms

 NOT excludes terms

  • "Malcolm X" NOT "Denzel Washington" excludes all books with the term "Denzel Washington"

Expand Search Terms

Please note that the symbols vary by database, so it is in your best interest to look at the Help or Search Tips or Advanced Search section of each database for the correct symbols. 



Add a symbol (these vary by database, examples include *, ?, $ ) to find variant endings of a word, which will broaden your search. Enter the root of a word and place the truncation symbol at the end:

  • advertis* will retrieve advertise, advertising, advertisement



Add a symbol (these vary by database, but examples include *, ?, $ ) within a word to find variant spellings of a term.

  •  wom*n will find women or woman

Search Parameters

Setting search parameters, before you begin searching, may help with maintaining focus and minimize distractions when searching in the database and even Google.

Here’s an example of criteria and parameters: 
Type of source: Scholarly articles 
Publication Years for Sources: last five years
[Check with your assignment sheet or the professor, but usually, we begin searching for the most current publications]
Minimum page length: 10 
[Check with your assignment sheet or the professor, but typically scholarly articles are longer than five pages and I prefer articles that are longer.]
Type of Expert as the Author: [Depends on the topic and will help when you select databases, via the Databases by subject tab; you’ll want to have more than one expert to give you the diversity you’ll want in your sources]

Then, analyze your research question(s) and/or topic, so that you will have a list of potential search terms available as you search. Typically, the first search terms may not retrieve many useful sources, so we need to be prepared with a range of terms. The reason is because we’re often still learning about the topic and have not learned the terminology of the experts (i.e. jargon). 

Here I’ll provide a sample interaction with a student that shows you one way to analyze your question: 
Student: My research question is “How young is too young for a smartphone?”
Librarian: What age do you mean by ”young”? 
Student: I was thinking 3 or 4. 

Librarian: Ok, so “preschool children” or preschoolers. Also, a broader term that includes this age group and younger is “early childhood.”  What do you mean by “too young”?
Student: I mean that the screens make children crabby and won’t listen.
Librarian: So, perhaps starting with broader terms like emotions and behaviors. With the term, “smartphones” be prepared to use other broader terms, like “mobile devices” and in some databases smartphones maybe two words so you will want to use quotation marks around the exact phrase to direct the database to search for these terms in this exact order: "smart phones". 
Student: So, my first search could look like this: “preschool children” and emotions and smartphones.
Librarian: Yes, you have now converted your question into terms that are searchable. Be prepared to swap out terms. 

Identify Key Concepts - Worksheets

The two Word documents below are intended to assist beginning researchers to learn how to identify key concepts within their research questions or topics. Additionally, they demonstrate how they may develop narrower, broader, or similar terms for a search query.