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Education: How to Search Better

Database Searching Tips

When searching, it is important to know:

  • what subject content a database covers
  • what types of publications are indexed (books, articles, reports, dissertations)
  • whether or not full-text is being searched, or just citation and abstract.
  • date coverage. 

Standard search syntax

  • Boolean (AND, OR, NOT)

Visualization of boolean searching with venn diagrams

  • Order of operation - use parens ( ) to control what operations happen first.
  • Phrase - include in quotation marks  " "
  • Truncation - * (gets the root word and variations)

What database should I use?

A database is an organized collection of information that allows a user to search for a particular topic or citation in a variety of ways (e.g., keyword, subject, author, title, population, date).  Some databases contain the full-text of articles from journals, magazines, and newspapers, as well as books/book chapters, while others contain only citations with or without abstracts.See:  Subject Specific Databases | Multidisciplinary Databases | Resource Specific Databases - Dissertations, News

Advantages of using Library Databases

  • Indexes scholarly content
  • Most often there are special limiters for scholarly and/or peer reviewed
  • May cover a specific subject area, results are more manageable
  • What is being indexed is discoverable, there is often a searchable list of publications indexed
  • Often content has been reviewed and evaluated for accuracy or credibility
  • Updated regularly
  • Content is stable, it does not come and go
  • Records are divided up into fields (author, title, subject, affiliation) that can be searched easily
  • Advanced search capability
  • Controlled vocabulary and often a thesaurus
  • Can save searches and set up alerts
  • Citation generator
  • Export function
  • Full text available directly, PennText links within the records

ProQuest - ERIC, LLBA, PsycInfo, ABI/Inform Global

Default search fields:  The All fields option looks for search terms in all fields—including any available abstract or full text.

Keywords:  if two or more terms are entered they are auto-combined with AND

Plurals: Searches regular plurals automatically.  You can change this in preference. To prevent auto-plurals, put a single word in quotes: "affect"

Phrases: Use quotes:  "active learning"

Truncation:  * use an asterisk to substitute for zero to five characters.  Use at the end of or within a word. Each truncated word can return up to 500 word variations.  Default truncation replaces only up to 5 characters. 

 identit* gets identity or identities

f*rm gets farm or firm

but since default truncation is up to 5 characters, sociali* retrieves less than socializ*

Defined truncation [*n] replaces up to N characters up to a maximum of 125 characters.


Words that are truncated are not considered when sorting by relevance.

Wildcarduse to replace a single character, either within a word or at the end of a world

organi?ation, e?l  

pre??? finds preface or prepaid

Note that words that are truncated or use wildcards are not considered when sorting by relevance.


near/n or N/n   searches two terms, in any order, within 0 to n words.  Replace ‘n’ with a number. Used alone, near defaults to near/4.  When you shorten NEAR to N, you must provide a number.    

virtual near/3 learning

pre/n or P/n  searches for documents that contain a search term appearing a specified number of words before a second term.

university pre/3 partnerships

Order of Operators (use parens to override)

  1. PRE
  2. NEAR
  3. AND
  4. OR
  5. NOT

Field search:  Use either the pulldown menus to select fields or specify them in your search: 

ti,ab,su(philadelphia) searches philadelphia in the title, abstract, and subject fields.

EBSCO - ERIC, Education Source Ultimate, Business Source Complete

Default Search fields: The default fields searched vary between EBSCOhost databases but most include: authors, subjects, keywords,  title information (including source title) and abstracts.  If there is no abstract, the first 1500 words of an available html article will be searched.

Keywords:  In many EBSCO databases, the default search is set to a phrase.  If two or more words are entered on the same line, they are searched as near to each other.  You can change the search mode option.

Boolean:  And takes precedence over Or.  You can enclose search terms and their operators in parentheses to specify the order in which they are interpreted. Information within parentheses is read first, information outside parentheses is read next.  If there are nested parentheses, the innermost parenthetical expression is processed first, then the next, and so on until the full query has been interpreted.


When a singular word is searched, the plural and possessive forms are also searched. If the word is enclosed in quotation marks, plural and possessive forms will not be searched.  "affect"

When a plural is searched, the singular version will be searched. If the plural is spelled differently, (e.g. child, children), a search is not expanded unless the "Apply additional terms to query" expander is checked.

PhrasesUse quotes:  "teacher evaluation" 

When Boolean operators are included in a phrase search enclosed in quotations marks, the operator is treated as a stop word. When this is the case, any single word will be searched in its place.


* enter the root of a search term and replace the ending with an asterisk

 * may also be used between words to match any word.


? replaces a single character,

Use # for variant spellings - colo#r finds color and colour. When using the hash (#) wildcard, plurals and possessives of that term are not searched.

An untruncated word may get more results because, for some EBSCO databases, a generic default thesaurus of different word forms, word tenses, and spelling alternates is accessed during the search process.


Near Operator (N) - Nn finds the words zero to n words of each other, in any order.  

digital N3 literacy

Within Operator (W) - Wn finds the words zero to n words of each other, in the order given.

university W3 partnerships

Franklin Articles+

Franklin: Articles+ covers academic and popular journal articles, newspaper articles, images, dissertations, and much more.  Because Articles+ is large in scope, careful searching is key.   

Default keyword Search:  Searches title, author, publication title, ISSN/ISBN, publication place, issue, abstract, pub date, start page, content type, full-text if available, subject terms, DOI.

Keywords: When two or more terms are entered, they are combined with AND

online learning = online AND learning

Connectors:   AND, OR,  and NOT may be used in a basic search.  Use capital letters.

depression AND (teen* OR adolescent* OR youth)

Singular/Plural:  singular and plural will be searched when a regular word is entered.

student will also retrieve students

Phrase:  Use quotes

"social media"

TruncationThe question mark (?) will match any one character. Asterisk (*) will match zero or more characters within a word or at the end of a word.

organi?ation  finds  organization  or organisation

col*r   finds color, colour

motivat* finds motivate, motivating, motivation

Proximity:  Enclose search terms in quotation marks and use the tilde (~) followed by a number indicating the maximum distance allowed between search terms. Auto singular/plural plural words will be included. Use any reasonable number.

    "carol dweck"~3 - terms are up to three words apart, in any order, a good option for names

"social emotional learning"~4 - terms are up to four words apart, in any order

"adolescent behavior family income"~50

Term weighting:  Extra weight can be given to a term using ^n<

sleep^5 stress

Field Searching:    Click the advanced search option for guided field searching.  You can also do field searching in the Basic mode.

A specific publication

publicationtitle:("social forces") and "educational attainment"

publicationtitle:("tesol journal" OR "bilingual journal") and pragmatics


author:("jonathan haidt"~3)

author:(perna) and "college access"   

Sample Search putting it all together

(latino* OR latina* OR latinx) students "higher education" gender^8

"mindfulness meditation" (seniors OR "older adults" OR aged OR elderly) sleep^7

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