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Undergraduate Research Programs: Library Research Guide

Coming up with a Research Question

Starting with a good research question is the first step in your research process.  This tool will help you map out your concept and streamline your research process.

Strategies for Successful Searching

There are two basic components for successful searching:

  • Choosing the right tool (metasearch engine, general or specialized database, catalog, etc.)
    Find database suggestions on the next pages of this guide.
  • Coming up with keywords and search strategies
    Please see the boxes below for tips on selecting and combining your search terms, narrowing or broadening your search. and finding relevant results.

General tips


  • Use the right tool for the job.

Our Research Guides will help you to decide whether to use free online or library-provided resources and tools, select the best online reference tools or a specialized databases in your discipline.

  • Choose contextually appropriate language (think about the terms the author would you use for the topic/genre):

flu or influenza
cops or policemen
teens or adolescents

  • Use double quotes to "glue" words together:

"global warming"

  • Many databases allow you to indicate if you want to include all your search terms (AND), any terms (OR) or exclude terms (NOT, minus sign fo Google).
  • Use wild cards (usually *) to find forms of a word:

translat* will find translate, translation, translator, etc.

  • Use advanced search options available for many search tools to make your search more specific.
  • Use a variety of tools and compare results from different sources.
  • Use people (online and offline) as information sources.
  • Talk to librarians for suggestions on best search tools and strategies.

Too few results?

Here are some possible reasons and tips for success:

Problem: You typed too many words.
Please note that licensed databases may treat multiple search terms as a phrase, i.e. look for them together)
Solution: Revise your search:

suggested solutions to public transportation problems in over the rhine
problems  "public transportation" "Over the Rhine"
solutions "public transportation" "Over the Rhine"

a database put AND between terms:
problems AND "public transportation" AND "Over the Rhine"

Problem: You may have chosen wrong keywords.

  • Use more general terms

Nook e-book reader

  • Think of synonyms, related terms, and various spelling options. Combine them with the "OR" operator:

color OR colour
film OR movie

gay marriage OR same-sex marriage
lowfat OT low-fat OR low fat

  • Use contextually appropriate language:

heart attack myocardial infarction (if you are looking for professional publications on the topic)

World War I The Great War (if you are looking for works written during this event)

  • Use wildcards (usually *) to find forms of the word:

col*r for color or colour

  • Problem: If you used advanced options you may have set too many limits (year, genre, full text, etc).
    Solution: Remove some limits.

  • Problem: The tool/database may be too specialized or have a different focus.
    Solution: Check out our Research Guides or ask a librarian for suggestions.

No results?

This rarely happens with Google searches, but a database may respond with "No matches found."
Here are some possible reasons and tips for success:

Problem: You typed too many words.
Solution: Stick to the essentials:

program on quitting tobacco cigarette smoking addiction - quit smoking program

Problem: You misspelled a word.
Solution: See if the search tool provides spelling suggestions. Otherwise use a dictionary.

Problem: You are using the wrong search tool (it may be too specialized or have a different focus).
For example, the library catalog does NOT search for articles.
Solution: Check out our Research Guides or ask a librarian for suggestions.

Too many results?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Be specific about your search terms:

chair rocker recliner

  • Use phrase searching ('glue" words together with quotes):

"global warming"

  • Use additional concepts to narrow your search:

java java music, java language, javascript, java island
Tom Jones Tom Jones singer, Tom Jones astronaut, Tom Jones novel

  • Exclude concepts by using the words "not" (or in some databases "and not"; Google uses the minus sign):

Library catalog: "substance abuse" AND NOT alcohol
Google: "substance abuse" -alcohol

  • Use proximity searching.

Many databases allow you to specify that terms can be within the sentence, paragraph, or X number of words from each other:

Google: police AROUND profiling

You can add a number to specify maximum distance between terms: police AROUND(3) profiling

Make sure to capitalize AROUND and other operators in Google.

In database consult Help pages to learn about proximity operators.

  • Look for the database limiters or modifying features to limit your results by date, language, full text availability, or source type (for example, academic/scholarly sources).

Not what you are looking for?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Select your terms carefully.
    See tips in boxes above.
  • Make sure you are using the right database/search tools.
    The search tool you are using may be too specialized or too general.
    It may not cover the time period you are interested in.

    Check out our Research Guides or ask a librarian to suggest the best tool for the job.

Any questions? Need help?

Call or email a subject librarian in your discipline.

For brief factual questions use the Ask a Reference Question online form.

Our Online Tutorials cover many topics, from coming up with a research question to citing your sources and using various software.

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