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Research Guides

Journal Research for Graduate Students in the Humanities and Social Sciences

The keyword search process

The keyword search process involves identifying effective keywords, combining them effectively to tell the database what you want, and sometimes using symbols as wildcards to make the keywords capture more variations. The process is cyclical. As you start to discover relevant articles in the database, you'll discove more, possibly better, keywords, and think of new ways to combine them to fine more, or more relevant, articles.

Develop keywords

Good keywords are the first step towards finding relevant and comprehensive results in keyword searching. You could start by brainstorming. For example, if your topic is:

    aboriginal owned and managed museums

Look for the main concepts in your topic. Look for synonyms, word variations, more specific words or examples, or broader terms.

Concept 1




First Nations


Concept 2






Concept 3







Mine for further keywords

As you continue with your research, examine citations that come up through your keywords searches, or through you reading, make notes of additional concepts or terms that you could use as keywords to find more articles.  


Handle different word endings

Try using an asterisk at the end of the word to find different endings:

      manag* will find manager, managing, manage, managed...

Many databases use the asterisk, or small star, in this way, but some use a different symbol. Check your database's help screen to find out. More examples:

      immigra* will find immigration, immigrate and immigrant

      canad* will find canadian, canadians or canada

      violen* will find violence or violent

Avoid truncating the word too early, or you could have some problems!

      pol* will find policy, police, politics, polite...  


Handle other word variations

Most databases have wildcards that will help find both of these variations at the same time. The symbols, and how they are used, differ according to the database, so check their help screens. Please note, some symbols are used to replace one letter only, some can replace multiple letters. Some can be used anywhere in the word, some only in specific places, like the middle or end.

For example, both ProQuest and Summon use an asterisk to replace multiple letters within a word;

   lab*r for labour or labor

ProQuest and Summon both use a question mark to replace one letter.

   wom?n for women or woman

Find phrases

In many databases, you can use quotes to search two or words together as a phrase.

   "acid rain"

   "art deco"

   "new democratic party"

Put your keywords together

AND     focuses your search by finding articles with both terms in the record.

      canada and immigration and italian 

      canad* and immigra* and ital*  

OR       finds articles with either term in the record. Good for incorporating synonyms. Use brackets around keywords grouped by or when you combine them with other search strategies.

       native or aboriginal or indian*

       museum* and manag* and (native or aboriginal or indian*)


Focusing your results

Many databases include additional search options to focus your search, for example on scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, English or another language, or the time the article was published.

select 'Academic article' and 'English'