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The University of Otago Library has updated its Subject Guides system. Please let us know what you think by filling out this survey.

Search Tips

Build Your Search Strategy: Create

Optimising your search terms

Your search will be more effective if you think about the way you use your search terms and how you combine them.

Alternate word endings

Use an asterisk (truncation) to find different word endings.
In our example:


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finds neonate, neonates, neonatal, etc.

You can also use truncation to find American and British variations.


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Finds operationalize, operationalise, etc.

Take care not to shorten a word too much. It may be better to use two words in some cases.


Baby OR babies
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is better than


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(which will give you a lot of extra results including babbling and the Babinski reflex)

Truncation is not recommended in PubMed. It affects the strategy that the database uses to get you the best results.
We recommend that you don’t use it in Google Scholar either, as it is incompatible with the search algorithm.

Exact phrases

In some cases you need to look for a combination of words as an exact phrase.
Use quotation marks to find phrases:


neonatal intensive care
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Some databases will allow you to combine this with the asterisk to cover all variations of your phrase:


premature infant*”


Databases have two main approaches to use of language for searching. These are keywords and subject headings.


Keyword search is a plain language search where you type words directly into the search box. The database looks for your words anywhere in the record – author, title, abstract, etc. Keyword search does not account for the meaning of a word or how relevant it is in the article. Keyword searching is not the same as typing a question into Google, so you still need to combine your terms using the techniques described in Build Your Search Strategy.

Keyword search works well in: Scopus, Web of Science, Cochrane databases, Google Scholar.

Subject headings

Some databases use subject headings to describe what an article is about. These are sets of terms with defined meanings which are used to index articles in particular databases. Their purpose is to make it easier to find articles on particular topics. They are usually arranged in a hierarchy.

The sets of terms used vary in each database, and they can also be laid out differently. This is what they look like in a selection of our databases that use subject headings:


Medline search term example


CINAHL search term example


EMBASE search term example

Subject headings are reviewed periodically but they may not cover the latest concepts, rare conditions or all drug names. For this reason you may want to use a combination of subject headings and keywords in your search.

Subject headings work well in: CINAHL, Medline, EMBASE, PsycINFO, AMED.

Check out our database guides for more information on how to use keywords and subject headings effectively in specific databases.