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Research Support Guide for Law Postgraduate Students and Academic Staff

Research support assistance and useful library resources for Postgraduate students and Academic Staff

What is a Search Strategy?

A search strategy is a structured plan of action to effectively and efficiently search for information

Search Strings

To retrieve the most relevant search results, you will need to construct a search string. 

A search string is a combination of keywords, truncation symbols, and Boolean operators you enter into the search box of a library database or search engine.

When choosing search terms, consider synonyms and related terms or phrases. Try making a mind map with terms on the subject that come to mind.

Break your topic into concepts. These concepts will form the building blocks of your search strategy.
  • Databases don't like sentences! 
  • Long phrases or sentences will confuse the database and lead to disappointing or NO results. 
  • Pick out the words that indicate the main points of your topic. 
  • Break your topic into concepts. These concepts will form the building blocks of your search strategy.


  • Good research topics usually contain 2-4 concepts. 
  • Topics with one concept will usually retrieve way too many results

Keywords – Synonyms


  • When you look at the research question in the example, note that there are circles around 3 words. These are the most critical important or distinguishing words in your research question.
  • Do NOT enter the whole research question. Unlike A Google search, a journal article database cannot sort through all the words and the results will be all over the place or you will get no results.
  • When you search a keyword, the database is looking ONLY for that word in that form. So when you search for “violent," that word is all that the database will return.


  • Once you have found useful information sources for your subject and determined which search terms to use, you have to consider how to make your information search more effective by using various techniques.
  • For example:
    • Boolean Operators
    • Phrase Searching
    • Brackets ()
    • Quotations “”

Boolean Operators

  • Many students write the full statement into the search box. Mastering Boolean search terms will help you save time and produce more successful results.

  • Boolean search is based on the work of prominent British mathematician George Boole. His legacy was Boolean logic, a theory of mathematics in which all variables are either “true” or “false”, or “on” or “off”. This logic still underpins all digital devices to this day, existing in almost every line of computer code.

  • Boolean search writing is a skill that you need to know in order to get meaningful search results from a wide range of software.

  • However, fully constructed Boolean search strings can look both confusing and complex, and may seem difficult to write.

  • When you use and enter certain words into your keyword search known as Boolean operators, you are telling the computer exactly how to perform a search- one that can be tailored to your specific needs.

  • The most commonly used Boolean operators are: AND, OR, and NOT and are used to combine search terms. They are included in many databases.

Tip: it is good practice to capitalise search operators as some databases require this.

Boolean Operator - AND

  • Using the Boolean Operator AND will narrow your search results to indicate that all terms must be included in our search results. In this case, using AND will retrieve search results containing both keywords globalization and human rights.



Boolean Operator - OR

  • The OR broadens your search in that any of the words it connects are acceptable.

  • Usually, OR is used to combine synonyms. In this case, using OR will retrieve search results containing either the keywords globalization or human rights.



Boolean Operator - NOT 

  • The NOT operator narrows your search by excluding all terms that follow from your search. In this case, using NOT will retrieve search results containing the keyword globalization but will not retrieve search results containing the keyword human rights.


Brackets ()

  • When using Boolean search, there is no way to determine how the computer will solve our equation. This means that in order to get the most relevant result for us, we have to use parentheses to tell the computer what to solve first. This is where using brackets comes into play.

  • Brackets are essential for writing complex search strings, but their application often causes the most confusion amongst recruiters. Essentially, a clause within brackets is given priority over other elements around it.

  • For example, if I was given the following search:

    • talent OR hr AND recruitment

  • Do I mean to say I want to find someone who has either the keyword “talent” or the keyword “HR”, and has the word “recruitment” too? Or do I mean that they have to have “talent” or the combination of “HR” and “recruitment”? You see, the absence of brackets makes it impossible for the database to know what you mean. Watch how things change when you add brackets.

  • In the following example, I have told the database that I need to find someone who has either “talent” or “HR” or both, and that they also need to have “recruitment”:

    • (talent OR hr) AND recruitment

  • But in the following example, I have told the database that I need to find someone who has “talent” or a combination of “recruitment” and “HR”:

    • talent OR (hr AND recruitment)

  • The most common place that brackets are applied by recruiters is in the use of OR strings. Basically, if you have written OR somewhere in your search, think about where the brackets will go because their placement will affect how the computer solves your Boolean search query, which will affect search results you receive back.

Quotations “” 

  • The use of quotations allows for even more uniqueness. If the keywords you are searching for need to be considered as a whole, then they must be enclosed within quotation marks in the search string. If not, the database will view the space between the two words as an AND, resulting in larger search that covers both words.

  • Use quotation marks whenever you have two or more words in a search that need to remain together like “Human Resources” or “Information Technology”. Quotations essentially define a number of words as one exact term, allowing you to pinpoint more accurately.

Phrase searching

  • Phrase searching is the most convenient way to search for two or more words as an exact phrase, by using quotation marks.

  • Phrase search will give you results that include the words inside the quotation marks in that exact order.

  • For example, if you are searching for information on job satisfaction then you are probably looking for those two words to appear right next to each other, with no other words in between, in the text of the document. To make sure that the database searches this correctly you can put quotation marks around your search term and force the database to search this as a phrase.

  • Be careful when you use phrase searching; if you put too many words in quotations the database will most likely not find any results.

Combining Multiple Operators

  • To preserve the logic of your search when using multiple Boolean operators, just group your keywords with parentheses (). We call this nesting. It looks complicated, but is really fairly simple.

  • Here's an example:

  • Suppose you want to write about the impact of learning environments on kids of all ages.  Normally, to capture articles about the different age groups, you would have run searches for several different combinations of keywords, like these:

    • learning environment AND children

    • learning environment AND adolescents

    • learning environment AND teenagers

Synonym for kids (children, adolescents, teenagers)

Nesting lets you run all three of those searches at once.  Here's how to create a nested search string:

1. Start by typing all of your keywords out, keeping all of the similar keywords (or synonyms) together.  In our example, the similar terms are the ones that refer to the age of the children.

  • learning environment children adolescents teenagers

2. Now place parentheses around the similar terms.

  • learning environment (children adolescents teenagers)

3. Connect all of your similar or interchangeable terms with OR.

  • learning environment (children OR adolescents OR teenagers)

4.  Connect any of the other keywords to each other (and to your parentheses) with AND.

  • learning environment AND (children OR adolescents OR teenagers)

5.  Click search! 

I hope this explanation helped you gain a better understanding of the fundamentals of Boolean search and made it less daunting to tackle in the future. There are, of course, several other Boolean modifiers you can use to further refine and improve your Boolean searches, as well as many more rules for the use of Boolean in various other search engines and databases.

Truncation (Stem Searching) & Wild Card Searching

    The wild card is usually represented by a question mark (?) which replaces one character only e.g. ne?t will find all citations containing neat, nest, or next (but not net because one character must be replaced).

    Truncation is usually represented by an asterisk (*) which replaces any number of characters. Enter the root of a word and replace the ending with a *

  • Child* finds child, children, childhood, childish, etc.

  • Educat* finds educate, educates, educating, education, educational, etc.

  • Wom*n    finds woman or women (not all databases support this placing of *)

Take care not to truncate too soon e.g. Comp* finds not only computers and computing but also company, companies, component, comparison etc.

Warning Try not to overuse truncation as you may overload the search engine and return an error message! Some databases will only allow limited use of the * symbol.

Proximity Searching

Proximity searching allows you to locate one word within a certain distance of another. The symbols generally used in this type of search are w and n.

The w represents the word "with(in)" and the n represents the word "near." This type of search is not available in all databases.

Near Operator (Nx) — finds words within x number of words from each other, regardless of the order in which they occur.

Example: television n2 violence would find "television violence" or "violence on television," but not "television may be the culprit in recent high school violence."

Within Operator (Wx) — finds words within x number of words from each other, in the order they are entered in the search.

Example: Winston w2 Churchill would find Winston Churchill or Winston S. Churchill, but would not find Churchill Winston.

Entering your Search Words

  • Tip! Firstly run your search without selecting a search field. This will find articles that mention your words anywhere in the citation e.g. in the title, abstract and subject headings.

  • You could then refine again to words in abstract (a short paragraph overviewing the article – be careful here as not all citations include an abstract).

  • To focus further, limit for words in title (= title of article).

  • If you are looking for obscure words unlikely to be mentioned in the citation search for words in text (=full-text of the article).

Refining Your Search

Too many results? Try focusing the search field on words in the title.

Too few results? Try broadening your scope by searching for words within the full text of the articles. This is particularly useful if you are looking for a more obscure word or phrase.

Improving Your Search Results

  • Is your spelling is correct? Are there any typing errors?

  • Check you have applied truncation correctly e.g. comput* (not comp*)for computing to avoid finding information on companies

  • Have you the AND (narrows) and OR (broadens) correctly?

  • Try finding more synonyms, e.g. adolescents for teenagers, or antonyms e.g. success instead of failure

  • Try broadening your search words e.g. use education instead of teaching

Search Example: Is there a link between childrens’ diet and behaviour?


diet* OR nutrition* OR food* OR meal* OR eat*

Select a search field


child* OR infan* OR “early years”

Select a search field


behaviour* OR behavior*

Select a search field

Or, if there is only one search box available:

(diet* OR nutrition* OR food* OR meal* OR eat*) AND (child* OR infan* OR “early years”) AND (behaviour* OR behavior*)

  • Note that AND takes precedence over OR
  • Use brackets if you are using synonyms or alternative words for a single concept.

Search Example: Explore the reasons why university students are becoming more stressed


stress* OR burnout OR “burn out” OR pressur*

Select a search field


student* OR undergraduate* OR postgraduate*

Select a search field


universit* OR “higher education”

Select a search field


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