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ANTA01: Introduction to Anthropology - Becoming Human (Lecture Section 1)

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.

Then, follow the steps in the table below to plan your search. It's important to consider your search terms and how they will be combined before you start using a library database. This will ensure your search retrieves enough relevant articles for your assignment. 

  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.

These are usually people or populations, places, time periods, and ideas or issues.

How did stone tools affect the evolution of human cognition?

Key concepts: stone tools, human cognition

Step 2: Identify search terms for each key concept To retrieve all relevant articles on your topic in a database, even if they use different terms. Brainstorm alternatives (synonyms, different spellings, or related terms) for your key concepts.

Concept 1: stone tools

  • Stone tool(s)
  • Stone tool-making

Concept 2: human cognition

  • Human(s)
  • Cognition
  • Cognitive abilities
  • Reason / Reasoning
  • Think / Thinking
  • Understand / Understanding
  • Learn / Learning
  • Remember / Remembering
  • Memory

Need help? See "How to choose good keywords".

Step 3: 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 (* symbol): 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)

("stone tool*" OR "stone tool-making")


(human or humans)


(cognition OR cognitive OR reason* OR think* OR understand* OR learn* OR remember* OR memor*)

Step 4: 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.

The following are some limits or filters you may want to apply to your search:

  • Scholarly / peer reviewed
  • Publication type (e.g. newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal)
  • Publication date
  • Language
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 concepts to the search (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)

E.g. expand search to include the effect of stone tool-making on hominid and human cognition

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 articles you're finding

E.g. focus your search on how stone tools were related to the development of language (a reflection of high-order cognitive abilities)

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

Entering Your Search in a Database

The search terms for each of your main concepts should be entered in their own search boxes. In the example below, the search terms for stone tools were entered in the first box, human in the second box, and cognition in the third box.

If you have multiple search terms for a concept, combine them with the Boolean operator OR.

Use the "Select a Field" drop-down menu to tell the database where it should be looking for your search terms (e.g. anywhere in the full-text of the article, in the title, etc.)

Screenshot of an example search in the database Anthropology Plus

Accessing the Full-Text of an Article

To read the articles or access the full-text PDFs of resources in your results list, look for a full-text or download link in the database. For example, in Anthropology Plus, click on Linked Full Text. In JSTOR, click on Download PDF.

If that isn't available for an article you're interested in, click on the Get it! UTL button - this will check for full-text access to the article in all of the databases and collections that the U of T Libraries subscribes to. If we have access to the article, you'll be directed to it automatically. 

Screenshot of the Get it! UTL button in a database


Screenshot of the Download PDF option in the JSTOR database.