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Library Services for Research

An overview of the services available via City's Libraries for Masters students, PhD students, postdoctoral and academic staff.

Basic Search Techniques

A 'Basic' Literature search involves searching using your own search terms. This is often known as free text or keyword searching. It is fine to perform such a search for an essay or assignment or when performing a 'scoping search' for a research proposal. However, when performing a search for your dissertation, research project or for a systematic review a more 'advanced' search would be necessary.

# Some resources may only provide the search functionality to perform a basic search.


There are a number of techniques you can use to enhance a free text / keyword search. You should be aware that not all of these techniques can be used in every resource you search:

Using 'Fields'

Some resources allow you to search using what are known as 'fields'. Field searching allows you to retrieve results where your search terms/keywords appear in a specific part of a document. You can, for example, restrict your search to find only documents where your search terms appear in the title or abstract (summary). This makes your results much more relevant than a basic keyword search which will retrieve information even if your terms appear on the very last line of a document.

Most databases allow you to perform a field search using an Advanced Search option.

These will usually provide you with two columns, one in which to enter your search terms and one to select the field where you wish those terms to appear e.g.

The recommended field to use is the Abstract field as this will retrieve results where your search terms appear in the summary of documents. If you find too many results you can change this to the Title field.

Finding variants of a search term

Most resources allow you to add the * (Truncation symbol) at the end of a word stem to find variants of that word. It is particularly useful for retrieving both the singular and the plural forms of a word in the same search e.g.

If you enter the term University into a database you will only retrieve results where that exact term appears.

If you enter Universit* you will find University or Universities.

Truncation will thus expand the number of results you find.

# Truncation is a useful technique but be careful when using it. For example truncating the term family (famil*) will find both the terms family and families BUT ALSO terms such as familiar which are irrelevant and would lead to lots of irrelevant results.

In this case it would be best to enter the terms like this: family OR families

Using search terms with alternate spellings

A selection of resources allow you to use a 'Wildcard' symbol to use terms which have alternate spellings, such as those which have English and American spellings e.g.

In English the term organisation is spelt with an 's', whilst the American spelling is with a 'z'.

Thus if you only use the English spelling in your search, you will not retrieve any results where the American spelling is used.

To find both, you would replace the 's'  with the wildcard symbol (the symbol varies from resource to resource but is in most cases the # symbol) e.g. organi#ation

Phrase searching

In most resources entering a phrase such as learning support will search for each term separately as the AND operator is automatically placed between your terms e.g learning AND support. This means that you will find results which contain the phrase but also results where the terms appear separately, leaving you with some irrelevant results.

If you want to restrict your search to only the phrase, place speech marks "  " around your terms e.g. "learning support"

Proximity searching

A selection of resources will allow you to perform a 'proximity search'. This allows you to find documents where different search terms appear close together, and in different orders.

If you enter the search term "student experiences", for example, a database would only find results which contain that exact phrase. Ideally, you would want to find documents which contain both the phrase or where the words appear in a different order e.g. experience of students

To achieve this you would simply separate the terms using what are known as proximity operators and a number indicating how far apart you want your terms to be in a document.

The operators will differ depending upon which resource you are using. In EBSCOhost, for example, the proximity operator is N which stands for near. You would thus enter the search like this:

student N3 experience

Adding Search Filters/Limits

Most databases provide options which allow you to limit or refine your search results. The most common limits usually apply to:

  • age groups
  • publication dates
  • study types
  • publication types
  • languages

You can use as many of these limits as you wish (think about your inclusion and exclusion criteria)