Introduction to Research: Search Strategies

Searching Tools and Strategies

  1. Do not write an entire sentence into a database's search box.  Explain your topic to someone in three words or less.  Multi-word terms that are a single idea count as one word, just put them in quotation marks (e.g. "human rights").  
  2. Search terms that represent different aspects of your topic (e.g. human rights and refugees should be entered into different search boxes when available.  Otherwise, these terms can be combined using the word AND (e.g. "human rights" AND refugees).
  3. Search terms that are synonyms or related terms (e.g. refugees or immigrants ) should be entered into the same search box and combined using the word OR (e.g. immigrants OR refugees).  If multiple search boxes are not available, group related terms in parentheses and combine with the word OR.

Single search box example:

"human rights" AND (refugees OR immigrants)

Multiple search box example:

Find more relevant results

Proximity searching  allows you to find results where your search terms appear close to one another (e.g. three words apart).  The premise is that if your terms appear close together, the words are probably being discussed in the same context.  Use proximity searching when you are getting too many results, especially ones that use your search terms, but not together.

Unfortunately there is not a universal way to construct a proximity search.  Consult a database's "Help" menu to find out how to use this method in that specific database. Here are the formats for the databases listed on this guide:

Note: The number 3 is used as an example and can be replaced by any number. You might try 3 then 10 then 15 then 25.

Proximity Searching at-a-glance

Many article databases have advanced search commands buried in their help manuals. Here are a few advanced tips for specific products that can help make searching more effective.*



near/# OR n/#  will look for documents that contain two search terms, in any order, within a specified number of words apart. Replace # with a number. You can go up to 100 words but stay within 2-20 for better results.

PRE/# or P/# will look for documents that contain one search term that appears within a specified number of words before a second term.

Quotation Marks

Surround your words with quotation marks—to force ProQuest to look for your words as a phrase only, rather than finding each word separately.



Near Operator (N): N5 finds the words if they are a maximum of five words apart from one another, regardless of the order in which they appear.

Within Operator (W): W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another, in the order in which you entered them.

Quotation Marks:

When a user encloses search terms with double quotation marks (i.e. "global warming") the search engine looks for words in the exact order in any field in the metadata and full text (when applicable).


Proximity is a command to find words close to each other. This is helpful to find words close to each other buried in the full-text. For example if you want to find the words coffee close to the word forecast you would use a proximity command.

Boolean commands are linkage words that help you find or eliminate specific words in a title, abstract or full-text search. Common examples are AND, OR, NOT. In many academic databases use upper case Boolean commands to distinguish them as a command.

*Keep in mind product programming can change so consult help manuals within each product to confirm you are using the most up to date commands. Most databases with have a HELP or ? link at the top right when you are in the product.

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