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Search Tips

Refine Your Search Strategy

Evaluating and revising your search

The next stage is to have a look at your results. Are you seeing the kind of articles you expected? If you come across alternative search terms that you had not thought of, you can go back and add these to your search.

If your results are broadly what you were looking for, but you want to tidy up your search, some databases have the option to add some limits to your search on the results screen. These are often in a bar on the left hand side of the screen. You can limit by year, type of publication, language, and other factors depending on your database. You often have the option to either include or exclude what you have selected: you cannot normally include and exclude in a single step.

In Scopus it looks like this:

Scopus limit example

Too many results?

If you have a large number of results and not many of them look relevant to your topic, you need to make your search more specific. Here are some tips for this:

  • Look for your key concept in the article title only. Databases often have options such as drop-down lists on the search page to restrict where in the record you want the terms to be found. Check out the guide to the database you are using for more information on this.
  • Add another concept to your search and use AND to connect. For example

    neonatal intensive care AND sound level*” AND growth rate*” AND length of stay

  • Reduce the number of terms you are searching with OR. Do any of your terms have alternate meanings that are bringing back irrelevant results?
  • Use limits where available, e.g. find only publications in English, studies conducted in Australia and New Zealand, or peer reviewed papers only.

Too few results?

If you are getting very few results, or none at all, you need to try making your search broader. Here are some tips for this:

  • Check for spelling errors and consider whether there might be variants, such as American English.
  • Check the articles you did find for more search terms and synonyms, which you can add to your search strategy.
  • Look at your best results and see which subject headings the database used. Some journals add keywords to articles which you can also check for ideas. You can normally find these by going to the full record page for an article, in most databases you can do this by clicking on the article title.
  • Make sure you get variant endings to your search words where appropriate by using asterisks, e.g. neonat*
  • Find articles that cite your best results. Many databases enable you to find articles that have cited an article, which can be useful because these are often addressing similar topics. Check the guide to your preferred database for how to find these, or ask a Reference Librarian.
  • Consider removing any terms following a NOT. Using NOT can end up removing relevant results from your search, so use it with caution.

If you are looking for an obscure or very recent topic, it may be that there are only very few (or no) results on that topic. Make an appointment to chat with a Reference Librarian if you are unsure.