Skip to Main Content
Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

Child Development: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (course 201800002): Step 1: Setting up a Systematic Search

A systematic search

A systematic search starts with a clear and focused research question. Once you have a good research question:

  1. Split up your research question into key elements.
  2. For each element, choose proper search terms (including synonyms and spelling variations).
  3. Search each element separately.
  4. Combine the separate searches with AND.

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)

How to choose keywords

Example: Does bullying affect a child's academic achievement

By dividing your research question into elements, you get a better overview of your search results and the parts of your search that might need improvement. For each element, try to find keywords that relate to that topic, words or phrases that you would expect to find in the title or abstract of relevant papers.


In most databases (not Google Scholar) you are able to perform searches for each element and then combine those searches in the Search History.

By combining those elements with AND, you will only get articles that match all elements and are therefore potentially relevant to your research question.