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Research Guides

Jackman Humanities Institute - Scholars in Residence - 2023

A library guide supporting research projects included in the JHI SiR 2020 program.

Write Effective Search Strategies

Before you begin, read your research question/assignment. If you have any questions, be sure to ask your instructor or TA before you begin your research.

  Why? How? Example
Step 1: Identify key concepts Key concepts from your research question are the most effective search terms to quickly locate relevant sources. Underline key nouns from your research question. Are there gender differences in associations between schizophrenia and substance use?
Step 2: Identify alternative search terms To find everything relevant to your topic in a database. Brainstorm alternatives (synonyms, alternative spelling) for your key concepts.

Key concept 1: gender differences

  • gender
  • woman / women
  • female(s)
  • man / men
  • male(s)

Key concept 2: schizophrenia

  • schizophrenia
  • schizophrenia spectrum
  • schizophrenic
  • psychosis

Key concept 3: substance use

  • substance use
  • substance abuse
  • substance dependence
  • addiction
  • drug use
  • drug abuse
  • alcohol abuse
  • alcoholism
Step 3: Consider using limiters (available in a library database) In order to focus on articles that are appropriate for your assignment. Choose limiters in a library database that are relevant to your research needs.
  • Scholarly or peer reviewed
  • Format: e.g. newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal
  • Publication date
  • Language
Step 4: Combine your search terms In order to get more focused results, use Boolean operators (and, or) as well as the wildcard* to combine key concepts.

And: Combines key concepts together to find articles that contain both concepts.

Or: Combines alternative search terms to find articles that contain either/any concept.

Wildcard*: Finds variations in spelling, prefixes, and suffixes (revers* will find reverse, reversal, reversing, etc.)

Quotation marks: searches for word or phrase as a unit (preserves word order)

(gender or woman or women or female* or man or men or male or males)


(schizophreni* or psychosis)


("substance use" or "substance abuse" or "substance dependence" or "drug use" or "drug abuse" or addiction)

Step 5: Review your search results Check if articles are appropriate for your assignment to ensure you find the right information to write a high quality paper.

Check if you articles are:

  • Relevant to your topic and discipline
  • Popular or scholarly (depending on whether you're working on the first or second annotation assignment)
  • Current enough (publication year)
Step 6: Adjust your strategy If you don't find relevant articles, change your search strategy.

Too few articles? Try...

  • Adding more synonyms or related terms (combine with OR)
  • Deleting the least relevant term from your search
  • Using the wildcard*

Too many articles? Try...

  • Focusing on a specific component of the topic
  • Adding more keywords (combine with AND)

Too few articles? Try...

  • Consider adding related terms to your search, which may have a broader or narrower meaning
  • Check for alternate spellings
  • Search for the plural versions of your concepts
  • Capture variant forms of each concept (e.g. as a noun vs. a verb)

Example: expand to dual diagnosis or comorbidity among women with substance abuse problems

Too many articles? Try...

  • Limiting the search to a specific population, group, or phenomena
  • Looking at your topic in a specific location or region
  • Focusing on a particular idea or theme that's present in some of the article you're finding

Example: narrowing the search to focus on women in a specific age group or location

Adapted from The University of Manchester Library: Making Your Search Work (Cheat Sheet)