Database Search Strategies

This tutorial provides strategies for effective database searching, including common database features and functionality.

Starting a Search

To get the best results when searching an article database:

  • Use keywords instead of full sentences or questions
    • Search engines allow you to type in a question or a phrase. In order to keep your results from being biased, databases cannot be searched this way because they do not want to guess what you are looking for. It is best to search using keyword terms instead of a question or phrase.
  • Combine concepts and use multiple search boxes
    • Search engines commonly use one search box. In databases, it works better to use multiple search boxes—one box per keyword or search term representing a different part of your topic or question.
  • Use quotes around phrases
    • If you use a term that has multiple words in it, use quotation marks around the phrase to ensure that the database searches for the phrase instead of the individual words.
  • Use synonyms combined by “OR”
    • It is a good idea to try multiple searches using different terms. You can expand your search by using synonyms in the same search box connected with the word “OR”. If you don’t know any synonyms for a search term, look at your search results. You can use keywords or search terms from the titles or abstracts of other sources.
  • Use the language of the database 
    • You can use keywords or search terms found in the subject terms or subject headings within the database. Databases use tags to group articles on similar topics. Using subject terms or headings increases the amount of relevant and specific results.
  • Search for all forms of a keyword
    • By using an asterisk symbol (*) after the root of a word, the database will search for all potential endings to a word at the same time. This way you don’t have to know the exact forms of words any authors used.
    • Example:
      vaccin* OR immuniz*
      This will search for and find articles that have the word vaccine, vaccines, vaccination, vaccinating, vaccinated, OR the word immunize, immunizing, or immunization
  • Use database search limits to make your results specific, such as:
    • Source Type
    • Publication Date
    • Subject
    • Language
    • Geography

Selecting an Article

Selecting an article title in the results list will take you to the article record, which provides useful information such as:

  • Subject terms, which are useful for finding articles on similar topics.
  • Abstracts, which summarize the article.
  • Citation tools, which generate formatted citations in multiple styles.
  • Export tools, which send article information to a citation manager.

Reading an Article

If you want to read an article, you will need to look for a link or button that says “Full Text,” “HTML Full Text,” “PDF Full Text,” or something similar. These links will take you directly to the article.

If there is not a link to the full text, look for a red “Find It” button. Selecting this button searches all of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries databases for availability elsewhere.

  • If the full text is available online, you will see option(s) to get full text.
  • If it is not available online, click “Request a copy if not available online ” under “Additional Options” to request a copy through Interlibrary Loan.