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Search Hacks: Home

A quick guide for getting the most out of library search tools and academic databases

Research Question

Determine What Information You Need: What is Your Research Question?

Think of all the questions you might ask to understand your subject. Consider questions that require you to think critically about the topic, or about a specific element or certain angle on your topic. Try filling in this prompt:

I'm studying __________ to investigate __________ in order to understand __________.

Search Terms

Create a list of keywords associated with your topic.

What else could it be called (synonyms)? What describes it specifically (hyponyms)? What is it related to broadly (hypernyms)?

Topics can be narrowed or broadened depending on the use of search terms.

General: monkeys

Narrower: howler monkeys

Broader: primates

3 Magic Words

There are 3 Magic Words, called Boolean terms (sometimes called Boolean operators, or command terms), you can use to connect or disconnect keywords.

Select any word to find out more about them.




Venn diagram of Boolean operators


Using the 3 Magic Words singly or in combination creates a more precise and powerful search, with a higher percentage of relevant results.

Exact Phrase Searching

Add Quotation Marks to search for an exact phrase or words in a specific or EXACT order. An exact phrase will return more accurate results.

For an example, search: separation anxiety vs. “separation anxiety”.


Place certain terms in parentheses to “nest” them or combine them when searching. This allows for a high level of specificity in your search.

It works just like basic math when (1 + 4) - 3 =  5 - 3 = 2. The words inside the parenthesis are searched first and are then followed by the rest of your search terms.

(health care OR medical care) AND culture

(premature OR preterm) infant

Truncation and Wild Cards

Truncation lets you search for a term and variant spellings of that term. 

Use an asterisk [ * ] or a question mark [ ? ] at the end of a root word to get results from any form of the root word. This is called "truncation" or "stemming."

These same symbols used in the middle of a word are called “wild cards.” Using [ ? ] will substitute only one letter. Using [ * ] will substitute an unlimited number of letters.

Teen*: will find teen, teens, teenage, teenager, teenagers, etc.

Kar?n: will find Karen, Karin, Karyn, Karon, Karum, Karan, etc.

Kar*n: will find Karen, Karin, Karyn, Karmen, Karsavin, Kardashian, etc.