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Search strategy: How to search

To 'Where to search?'

Use your search history

Many search engines keep track of your searches in a search history. You can use this information to:

  • Keep an overview of your exact searches so you don't have to do things twice.
  • Retrace an earlier search
  • A quick comparison of the results of several searches
  • Work systematically by searching for separate terms first and next combine the results of your search history by means of the operators AND, OR and NOT

Please note: if you want to save your search history after closing your browser session you need to create an account in the search engine in question. You can almost always do this for free.


If you are working on the same subject over a longer period of time, it is useful to be kept up to date about new results of a search action or new issues of journals you are interested in.

Many search engines and databases offer this option, but almost always you will be asked to create a personal account. The results will be sent to you by email, or in your RSS feed. Usually they pop up when you log in to the system.

Tips & tricks

  • Write down what you did during your search (eg keep a list of the search term databases you used).
  • Use more than one search system. In almost no scientific discipline you can search for articles with one search engine.
  • Create free accounts in your databases and save your searches.
  • The more specific your (professional) terms, the more specific the results.
  • Follow links (if possible) by clicking author, keyword, citations and references to find related information.

How to search? Constructing a search

You have formulated your search question as specifically as possible and you find some good search terms to start your search with. You also decided which search engine or database you are going to use.

Now all you need to know is how to use these search engines and databases. You can apply several search methods and search techniques.

Search methods

Snowball method: You search on the basis of a suitable publication you have found earlier. For example other publications by the same author, or you go searching for other sources in the reading list of a relevant publication (authors make use of the work of others as a source for their own work, these sources will be mentioned in the reading list of the new publication). This way of searching for references goes back in time to older publications.

Citation searching: see if the article you found has been cited, and if so, have a look at this new article. If this article is also relevant you can see if this article has also been cited, and so on. Use a citation database, like Web of ScienceScopus or search Google Scholar. This search method goes forward in time to newer articles. Please take into account that a recent article may have no citations yet or only just a few.

Catalogue method: Searching with search terms of your own choosing in a search engine that makes literature in a certain collection/collection searchable. For example in WorldCat.

Systematic method: you search on the basis of (combined) search terms in search engines which make literature in a certain discipline (or all disciplines) searchable (regardless of availability) with the intention of finding as much literature as possible on that subject. You may expand (adding search terms you have found) or limit (cancelling search terms or filter on year of publication). You can use several search techniques in the systematic method. ‚Äč

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)

Too few results: what to do?

If you do not get enough results, you could:

  • Check your spelling
  • Use less specialist terms
  • Broaden your search by adding alternatives for your search terms in an OR relationship (for instance segregation OR discrimination)
  • Broaden your search by including word varieties: either in an OR relation (for instance: segregation OR segregated) or by truncating your search terms, if allowed by the search engine (for instance: segregat*);
  • Broaden your search by leaving out an aspect/variable
  • Adjust/accentuate your search terms by using the provided keywords and/or thesaurus of a specific search engine/database 
  • Use other search engines and databases

Too many results: What to do?

If you get too many results to view/use you could: 

  • Search more specifically by using more specific search terms
  • Add an extra aspect to your search (with AND)
  • Limit your search to certain years of publication
  • Change the sorting order: sort by relevance but also try year of publication or, if possible, the number of citations
  • Change to a different (subject related) database that better fits your topic