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Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

Training ISS premaster Academic Skills: Search techniques


Search for literature in the search systems of your choice. Use the information on this page for help.

View the results of your searches. Do you always get the same titles or does your result differ with the different search systems? Do you get many results or very little? Adjust your search query if necessary.

Write down the sources you find. Add in which system you found the titles and the search terms you used. Also write down as much information as possible about the source (author, title etc) so that you can easily find it later.

On the next page we will discuss alternative/additional methods of searching for literature.

Search techniques

If you use more than one search term in your search, most search engines will look for documents in which all entered terms occur. Would you like to combine search terms in another way? In that case, you need to use so-called operators. This search method is also called a Boolean search (after George Boole).

The operators most frequently used:

  • AND: both terms must occur. Example: fashion AND France
  • OR: at least one of the terms must occur. Example: fashion OR trend OR hype
  • NOT (or sometimes AND NOT): the term must not occur. Example: fashion NOT clothes
  • "... ...": exact phrase, terms must occur together and in this exact order. Example: "French revolution"
  • * . By putting an asterisk behind the 'trunk' of a word, you search by all possible endings. Example: govern* searches for government, governments, governed, governance, governmental etc
  • Masking/Wild cards: for example a question mark (?) or hashtag (#) may be used to replace an unknown character. Example: labo?r searches both labor and labour; or : wom#n will return results with both woman and women

You can combine operators, much like in mathematical equations. ‘AND’ takes priority unless you use brackets to group concepts: (youth OR adolescent* OR "young adults") AND (bully* OR "peer harassment").

Please take note: operators and wildcards may differ among search engines.

Other techniques you can use:

  • Using keywords generated by the authors or by the makers of a search engine
  • Using thesauruses: (subject related) overviews showing the relation between professional terms
  • Field specific search: indicate that your terms must occur in a particular part of the publication (title, summary, name of the author). Use the 'advanced search' option.
  • Using filters and 'limits': limit your set of results by excluding publications having certain features (for instance filter on language or publication year)

Using more than one operator

Just like in mathematical equations, it is possible to combine operators. In short, it means that you combine all search terms (synonyms, word forms, spelling, abbreviations, etc.) that belong to one particular element of your search query with OR and put them together in parentheses (youth OR adolescents OR children). You can then link this set of terms with an AND relationship to another term or set of terms, for example: (youth OR adolescents OR children) AND (dyslexia OR "reading disorder").

Behind the scenes:
In the search string (youth OR adolescents AND poverty) the system will search for the single word 'youth' or the combination 'adolescents AND poverty'. While if you use parentheses such as in: ((youth OR adolescents) AND poverty), the system will search for both 'youth AND poverty' and 'adolescents AND poverty'.

Build your search

Structure of your search:

  • Start your search broad or narrow and then zoom in or zoom out
  • Go back and forth between the search terms you use and your search result to improve your search 
  • Too few results? > Less AND combinations, broader terms, perhaps truncation, use OR instead of AND, use other search systems.
  • Too many results? > More AND combinations, more specific terms, exact phrase search, use AND instead of OR, use filters (by year or document type, for example)


For our search question:

I am looking for information on treatment of eating disorders for boys and men, in publications starting from the year 2000.

a search query (search string) could look like this:

(treatment OR therapy OR intervention OR psychotherapy) AND ("eating disorders" OR bulimia OR anorexia OR "disordered eating" OR "eating attitudes")  AND (male* OR men OR boy*)

You can limit beforehand to (or filter your search results on) publication year.