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Composition II Research Guide for ENGL 102: Search Strategies

Spring 2018

Improving Your Searching

In Composition I (ENGL 101), you learned about several search strategies that work better with databases such as the Library Catalog and Academic Search Complete. You can review and expand on much of that information in the Basic Strategies for Searching Box on this page. As you become more experienced at research, your needs become more specific, meaning you need to increase your knowledge of how resources work. The Records! video shows how databases are different than the World Wide Web, while other boxes explore how to find disciplinary perspectives and using Google Scholar.

Records! Video

What do your search terms match up against in a keyword search? Why is searching the library catalog or an article database different than searching Google?

Finding Disciplinary Perspectives

Disciplinary perspectives are closely related to the scholarly literature. Disciplines are branches of learning and are distinct, though related, to subjects. Hip-hop as a topic, for example, can be approached through the disciplines of music, literature, psychology, sociology, etc. This page contains some strategies for finding disciplinary perspectives on your topic.

Here are some strategies for finding discipline-related information in books and media.

  • Find relevant LC classification letters/numbers for your topic and browse the shelves under those subject areas. You will find books on hip-hop, for example, classified under ML (music), E (history), GV (dance), PS (literature), KF (law). For an outline of the LC Classification system adapted to the Upstate Library, click here.
  • Find Subject Headings in the full record of books. Note the LC areas associated with the headings.
  • Subject encyclopedias and other discipline-oriented reference works will give general disciplinary perspectives on many topics. While these might not directly address your topic, they may be useful in determining how people in the discipline think about issues related to your topic.
  • You are more likely to get a good disciplinary perspective from a scholarly book than one by a journalist or popular writer. Most books will identify the author's affiliation. Many scholarly books, but not all, are published by academic publishers.

When using a multidisciplinary database such as Academic OneFile or Academic Search Complete, bear the following in mind:

  • You are most likely to find disciplinary perspectives in scholarly journals or academic trade publications. Both types will fall under the broad category of academic journals, though if you limit to "peer-reviewed" journals, you will only get the former.
  • Sort your results by academic journals, then scan the titles of journals to see the subjects and disciplines represented.
  • You can usually find out more information about the journal (what subjects it covers) if you go to the full record (click on the title of the article in the results list) and then click on the title of the journal. This should lead you to a journal page with information about the journal and a way to access records and full text.
  • Check the credentials of the author or authors of the article. Often their area of academic expertise will be identified at the beginning or end of the article or elsewhere in the journal (e.g., a list of contributors).

Some full-text journal collections, such as JSTOR, Project MUSE, and Science Direct allow browsing and searching by discipline. This may be a good next step if you don't find what you need in a multidisciplinary database.

Three subject databases group a number of disciplines into broad fields: Humanities Full Text, Social Sciences Full Text, and General Science Full Text. Like the multidisciplinary databases, these contain a mix of articles from scholarly journals, trade publications, newspapers and magazines.

Other databases are selective collections of materials--reference works, articles from scholarly journals, newspapers,and magazines, multimedia sources, and websites that explore a particular subject area or type of information. These include Biography In Context, US History In Context, and the Literature Resource Center. The sources may draw from a number of disciplines, so use the same strategies you would for a multidisciplinary database.

The big scholarly disciplinary databases (such as MLA Bibliography, PsycINFO, CINAHL and the like) will probably be less useful to you at this stage because they are geared to professionals in the field. While they may contain some useful material, much will be highly specialized and full of disciplinary jargon. In general, these databases are less likely to have full-text articles, though nearly all have abstracts. Nonetheless, it may sometimes be useful to know about them. Go to the Databases Page and select Subject to see a list of databases useful for a particular subject.

Look at the Article Databases tab to access recommended databases for your Composition II assignments.


Basic Strategies for Database Searching

The key to being a successful online searcher & researcher is to learn, practice and use common search techniques that you can apply to almost any database, including article databases, online catalogs and even commercial search engines like Google. It is important to learn these so that you will be able to quickly retrieve relevant information from the various library databases. The goal of the next few tabs is to explain some of the basic searching tricks and techniques that will enable you to create a more effective (and successful) search phrases. Please remember when you search a database and do not get the results you expect, Ask-A-Librarian for advice we are happy to help you find what you need.

**DISCLAIMER** Databases and search engines vary and may use portions of Boolean Searching. This information sheet is general tips & tricks and is meant to help in general use. Check the specific database or search engine (use the help screen) to see the operators it uses. 

Boolean searching is the most powerful way of searching a computer database and may be used in many of the library's electronic databases, Internet databases. The Boolean search uses three "operators" to combine your keywords into a more powerful and direct search.  The basic Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT. The operator you choose to combine keywords determines how the computer performs the search and what information it returns. Capitalizing the Boolean operators is not necessary in all databases but is a good habit to have.

Boolean logic takes its name from British mathematician George Boole (1815-1864), who wrote about a system of logic designed to produce better search results by formulating precise queries. He called it the "calculus of thought." From his writings, we have derived Boolean logic and its operators: AND, OR, and NOT, which we use to link words and phrases for more precise queries.

AND - narrows the search by combining words – the computer looks for all results that have both words connected by AND. This is helpful when searching for a broad topic that you want only a piece of such as Education AND Preschool. This will give you only "preschool education." Sometimes the AND command is represented by a + sign.

Boolean AND showing Crime Poverty related crime and Poverty

The use of AND

AND is used to tell the computer that your search results must have BOTH (or all) of the search words. AND has the effect of narrowing your results shrinking and focusing your topic.  It is often (but not always) a default in Library Database such as Academic Search Complete, and is added behind the scenes in many search engines like Google.

Screen capture showing the use of the built in AND as part of the database

For example: Searching Crime you would get 212,400 results while searching Poverty gets 61,500 results But Crime AND Poverty gets 2020 results the results are only about crimes that are related to poverty.

NOT - narrows the search by eliminating words – the computer looks for results in a topic and then eliminates a portion. This is helpful to direct your research away from a topic or area such as Hurricanes NOT Georgia. This will return results about hurricanes in all states and countries except Georgia. Occasionally the NOT command is represented by the sign.


Graphic showing Dementia NOT Alzheimer's, Alzheimer's related dementia and alzheimer's

The use of NOT

NOT is used to tell the computer that you do NOT want a search term in your results; that is, it excludes results. NOT can be used to reduce the scope of a topic by removing or ignoring elements of a topic, such as a group (School NOT College) or an implied topic.  It can also help clarify your topic (New York NOT New York City).

Screen Capture showing use of NOT in database

For example: Doing research on Dementia but you do not want to include the topic of Alzheimer’s  you would search Dementia NOT Alzheimer’s to receive all of the information regarding Dementia that is NOT related to Alzheimer’s.

*NOT is a very powerful operator that should be used with caution.

OR - broadens the search by offering more choices – the computer looks for all results that have either the first word OR the second. This is helpful when searching for a topic that has several names or terms associated with it such as "Skin Cancer" OR Melanoma. This will return entries related to skin cancer & Melanoma.

Graphic showing use of OR Kids OR Children

The use of OR

OR is used to tell the computer that your results can have either (or all) of your search words. Your documents will have one OR the other OR all of your search words.  This is used to connect related or synonymous terms and is very helpful in searching ideas that can be described in different terms.  OR and a thesaurus can help you find more information about your topic. OR has the effect of expanding your results by adding more synonyms to your search your results will be increased.  

Screen Capture showing use of OR in searching

For example: Children can also be thought of as Youth, or Kids in keyword searching the computer is literally looking for the word you ask for not the concept, so if you search for Kids you only get 104,170 results but by searching Youth OR Kids OR Children your results are 1,367,728, over a million more results.

When needing to do more advanced searching there are a few more tricks that can help you create more effective search strings.  The use of tools such as Exact Phrase (or the use of quotation marks), Wild Card and Truncation symbols, effective use of Nesting and the use of Proximity Operators are all more advanced searching tools that can assist you in creating successful search strings. For the most part web search engines like Google do not respond to the use of these more advanced searching techniques but they can be useful in the Library Databases.


**DISCLAIMER** Databases and search engines vary and may use portions of Advanced Searching. This information is general tips & tricks and is meant to help in general use. Check the specific database or search engine (use the help screen) to see the operators it uses. 

Quotation Marks or Phrases in Quotes AKA Exact Phrase 

Using "quotation marks" to enclose your search terms will force the computer to find your search string EXACTLY as you have it creating what is know as an Exact Phrase search. Unlike using AND where your search results will include both words ANYWHERE in the results using quotation marks is designed to find your search words as an exact phrase in the order you have typed it.

Example: “Microsoft Office” will only find results where Microsoft is followed directly by Office so it will not find an article with “in my office I use Microsoft” nor will it find “Office suite by Microsoft”.

Google excludes common words in English and in other languages it calls these stop words.  Words such as the, I,  “la” (which means “the” in Spanish) and “de” (which means “of” in French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese). When Google ignores a term critical to your search, e.g., LA (common abbreviation for Los Angeles), enclose the term in quotes.  


Computers usually perform AND and NOT searches first, then the OR searches but like in a math equation you can force the computer to perform the OR search first with Nesting.  Nesting uses parenthesis () to encase the OR search string forcing the computer to complete the OR search first then move on to the AND or NOT search.

(Georgia OR South Carolina) AND "Teaching Shortage"

SO it first creates a large pool with the OR search then limits down the results with the AND or NOT search. The computer first searches for everything that has either Georgia OR South Carolina in it and then from that pool of results it finds items related to Teaching Shortages.

screen capture showing nesting (email OR e-mail OR "electronic mail") AND security

With this search people call electronic mail by several terms combining them in an OR search encased in parenthesis creates a pool of results that include all of the variations of terms for electronic mail and then it limits that pool to only those results that ALSO talk about security.


Wild Card and Truncation symbols

Searching using ? as a wildcard and * as a truncation symbol allows you to create searches where there are unknown characters, multiple spellings or various endings.  (Note neither symbol can be the first character in your search term). Generally speaking the ? replaces a letter such as wom?n will find women and woman.  The * is for truncation or finding all of the various endings a word could have so a search for work* will find all of the words that start with work but have different endings such as working, worked, workhorse etc.

Example: ski? OR ski* - other words that might be used in an article about "ski" are skiingskier, and skis. If you were to type skier, you would miss all the articles about skiing or people who like to ski. Thus, you should use only the root word in a search string, but also use a wildcard to indicate that you want articles with all other forms of the word in them.

Remember not to shorten the search term too much. Manufactur* will search manufacturingmanufacturermanufacturemanufactures.  Shorting Manufactur* down to Man*, you would receive information about manufacturing, but you would also information about management, manuals, mankind, manipulation, and people named Manuel, etc.

Proximity Operators

Proximity (aka positional) Operators are not really part of Boolean Logic, but like Boolean they help formulate search statements. Not all search engines or databases accept Proximity Operators so make sure to read the help screen for more advanced help.  N# (near) and W# (within) are Proximity Operators that will connect words together similar to using the “quotation marks”.  Using N# or W# followed by a number tells the computer you want the two search words to be found within a certain number of words of each other.

Within or W# searches for your two keywords in the order of your search string with a maximum number of words between them.

Example: repressed W8 memory will find articles that have the word repressed first with up to eight words apart from the word memory. Key here is that repressed is BEFORE memory.

Near or N# searches for your two keywords regardless of the order in which they appear and are separated but a maximum of words apart.

Example: tax N5 codes will find articles that have the words tax and codes a maximum of five words apart no matter the order in which they appear.

ADJ (or adjacent to) is a way to link words into phrases like quotation marks, it tells the computer that the keywords must be found next to one another but unlike quotation marks the words can appear in either order.  This can be helpful if you are unsure if an author is listed first name then last or the other way around.

Example: Ernest ADJ Hemingway will find both Ernest Hemingway and Hemingway, Ernest. 


Google Scholar an Exception to the Rule?

Google Scholar ( is a web search engine that searches specifically for scholarly literature and academic resources from publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites. Google Scholar returns not only scholarly journal articles but also research reports, dissertations and theses, preprints, technical reports, patents, working papers, books, court opinions as well as things such as power point presentations, web pages and many other document types it deems scholarly using a built in algorithm.

Google Scholar is NOT Google, while Google searches the entire public Web, Google Scholar searches a smaller portion of the Web, similar to searching in the Library's catalog and databases.  There is a more scholarly, authoritative focus with Google Scholar distinguishing it from Google. Google scholar is like a federated search allowing you to search in many places at once.  Remember it is not exactly the same as a Library Database, many articles may have links to the Library Databases (if your library is linked in your Google Scholar settings) but it will NOT be all of the same materials.  Think of it as a starting place for more precise searching, more search features, and more content use the Library's Databases.

Google Scholar includes many citations that link directly to publishers' web sites of which most will charge a fee for full access. However, the USC Upstate Library subscribes to many of these publications offering you access without paying the publisher (we already have paid).  In order for Google Scholar to link to these articles in our paid databases you must make sure that the Library links has USC Upstateā€™s library information.   Go to Settings on the Main Google Scholar Choose Library links on the left side of the page.   Type in Upstate and search. Check the box next to University of South Carolina. Choosing Open WorldCat will help you access books from our catalog along with other local catalogs If you are on a campus computer this has already been set up for you.

Google Scholar includes many citations that link directly to publishers' web sites of which most will charge a fee for full access. However, the USC Upstate Library subscribes to many of these publications offering you access without paying the publisher (we already have paid).  In order for Google Scholar to link to these articles in our paid databases you must make sure that the Library links has USC Upstate’s library information. 

  • Go to Settings on the Main Google Scholar
  • Choose Library links on the left side of the page.  
  • Type in Upstate and search.
  • Check the box next to University of South Carolina.
  • Choosing Open WorldCat will help you access books from our catalog along with other local catalogs
    • If you are on a campus computer this has already been set up for you.

infographic for Google Scholar Advanced search

Altho the above video was created by Eastern Michigan University it covers the best parts of Google Scholar.