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Getting Started
An introduction to search strategies (including Boolean operators and keyword searches)
How to troubleshoot your search

Getting started

Use your course readings and lecture notes to brainstorm keywords. 

These are just a few of the many broad terms used in the Environmental Sciences to help you get started:

  • Pollution
  • Pollutants
  • Waste products
  • Refuse and refuse disposal
  • Hazardous wastes
  • Recycling (Waste, etc.)
  • Green products
  • Ecology
  • Biotic communities
  • Natural disasters -- Environmental aspects
  • Ecosystem health, Ecosystem management...


Search strategies

Task Why am I doing this? More help

Brainstorm keywords to use in your search. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my topic?
  • What are the key aspects of this topic?
  • What are alternate keywords for each aspect?

Developing an effective search strategy will assist in retrieving better quality results when searching the library catalogue, databases and the internet.

This can be tricky as the same idea can be expressed in many ways. To ensure best results when searching, brainstorm several keywords whenever possible.

Try using:

Boolean operators 

Phrase searching



Choose a relevant journal database to search for scienfitic articles on your topic.  Journal articles provide the most current information and searching a database is a great way of locating articles on a specific topic.

Types of journals

Finding Databases

Boolean operators...a funny name for a great tool!

Creating effective searches

When searching databases for articles, you should have more than one word entered in your search boxes!

Example: 'earthquakes' is much too broad. Add additional keywords or descriptors using the boolean operator 'AND' to better define your topic.

Choose ‘hard terms’ for your keyword search over ‘soft terms’.  

Example: “effects” is a soft term.  It’s not a concrete thing which means it has a lot of synonyms and is likely to get bad search results.  Let’s pretend you were researching the effects of floods. Instead of searching "effects", you might do a little reading on floods and find relevant hard terms such as "runoff", "hydrograph", "urbanization", and "infrastructure." These are concrete things and thus likely to get better search results.

Keyword searches: what are they and their potential problems?

Keyword searching is essentially taking your best guess at the terms which will appear in articles that are about your topic.  This can be a very effective way of searching.  However, you may get a number of irrelevant results because the keywords you chose may appear in irrelevant articles.  You also never know if you've found all the article on your topic. 

Tip: The next time you're using a library catalogue/database or looking at a book or article, take note of the author defined keywords or keywords and subject headings used then try using those terms in your next search.

Troubleshooting your search

  1. Check your spelling: Google your keywords to make sure you spelled them correctly.  Your search will not work if your keywords aren't spelled properly.
  2. Too many results?  Add keywords to focus your search results. For example, if you tried searcing the word pollutants, you might focus on a specific type (dioxins), industry (pulp & paper industry), and/or medium (water).  Check your course notes or look at your current search results for more ideas on focusing your search.
  3. Too few results?  Take keywords away to broaden your search.
  4. Try descriptors or subjects:  Using the database's own vocabulary (descriptors or subjects) can often vastly improve your search.  Ask for assistance at the library if you need some help.