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Graduate Student Library Services: Search Strategies

Identify Relevant Disciplinary Databases

What fields of research are likely to care about your topic? Many research topics are interdisciplinary, so it's important to consider searching disciplinary databases that might have relevant literature. 

Where to Search

Venn diagram showing overlap between Google Scholar, ERIC, and PsycInfo

Part of deciding where to search is recognizing the differences between tools. The search scopes of Google Scholar and disciplinary databases such as ERIC, PsycInfo, and Child Development Abstracts are fairly different, but also have some overlap. 

Google Scholar searches across resources from all disciplines/subject areas:

  • journals publisher websites
  • professional association websites
  • university websites
  • Google Books

A Disciplinary Database searches a defined set of resources, all focused in that field of research, usually this includes: 

  • journals
  • book chapters
  • dissertations

Disciplinary Database 

A disciplinary database identifies the citing articles within its scope (the journals it indexes). In this example, within the database PsycINFO, this article has been cited 223 times since 2001. 

Citation entry in PsycINFO 

Google Scholar

Google Scholar's scope is larger, therefore it can identify that an article has been cited more times across a larger body of literature or types of sources (such as books and reports). Due to the unmediated nature of Google Scholar, some of the "cited by" citations might also be duplicates. Google Scholar reports this article has been cited 344 times since 2001. 

Citation of article in Google Scholar

Boolean Searching

Most every database relies upon Boolean searching. It is a structured means of creating a search "equation."

  • Using AND between terms tells the database to find both terms in the same record
  • OR means that you want the database to find any of the terms
  • NOT means you do not want to retrieve records with a particular term

These three operators allow you to create complex queries that search for each component of your topic, while still allowing to search for synonyms or related terms to any or all of those components. 

graphic describing AND, OR, NOT functions

Staying Updated with Alerts

It can be difficult to keep up with all the new information that might be relevant to us. One way to make it easier is using "push notifications". These are simply tools that send you information on an ongoing basis after you have subscribed to them.

By setting up alerts you don't have to remember to check if a journal has published a new issue, you will be notified via email. You can also use search alerts in databases to be alerted if there any new articles that match your search terms.

Google Scholar Alerts

After performing a search for the topic of interest, click "Create alert" in the sidebar of the search results page; enter your email address. Google will periodically email new results that match your search criteria.

Google Scholar create alert button

Keyword vs. Subject Heading Searching

Disciplinary databases often have subject headings (a set of official terms used to describe something). For example, the American Psychological Association Thesaurus is a list of subject heading terms that are assigned to items indexed in the PsycINFO database. Subject heading searching can improve the relevance of your search results since other items in the database about that same thing will have the same subject heading. 

Multidisciplinary databases like Web of Science do not have subject headings and must be searched with keywords. 


  • good initial strategy
  • must perform searches with synonymous words/terms
  • more likely to have irrelevant results

Subject Headings

  • standardized words or phrases used to categorize literature
  • relevant results much more likely
  • subject headings not consistent across databases

Searching Databases

Search Terms

subject heading list in a database

  • Brainstorm a list of possible search terms related to your topic first.
  • Once you start searching, pay attention to the terms authors use in their title and abstracts. Also, view the subject heading assigned to the article; these are the "official" controlled vocabulary the database is using to describe a given idea.
  • Be flexible and revise your searches as needed. It's helpful to write down what terms you've used, or save your search history. 

Searching Tips

Most all databases have similar search functionalities. 

  • Quotation marks searches the database for those words together as a term; for example, "social identity".
  • An asterisk (*) searches the database for that word plus any variants of the root word. This is called truncation; an example is using the search term work* will provide results that include work OR worker OR workplace, OR worksite. You can also use this for the beginning of the term; *camp will search for camp OR encampment
  • Use the OR search fields to search for synonyms; for example, consider searching for discrimination OR bullying OR harassment.

Journal Rankings

The following resources can help you answer the following questions, which can be helpful to consider when performing a literature review: What are the top journals in your field? Which journals are the best for your topic? 

Joining Discussion lists

Every discipline will have a space for conversation among researchers. Sometimes these virtual spaces are in the form of a blog, wiki, social network, or email listserv. Consider joining or following an academic network in your field of study to keep up to date on new research. 

References & Citation Searching

Aside from searching databases by topic, another very important way of discovering research is using the reference list of articles and seeing who else has cited the article. How many times an article has been cited can tell you not only how influential an article has been, but can lead you to more articles on your topic. 

one article leads to references and cited bys