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Searching for Articles: 4. Combining and Refining

Using Those Results

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Studying the results of any search you perform is a great way of finding more relevant keywords, removing irrelevant terms, and looking for additional resources in article bibliographies.  You can also follow author names to see if they have written more on this subject and what authors they have cited.

Using Limiters and Refiners

You can limit any search you perfom by checking the boxes beneath or to the left. This will have the effect of returning only those types of documents that meet your critieria.  Some options for limiting and refining are:

  • By publication year
  • Full text only documents
  • Journal title
  • Peer Reviewed
  • Articles with Images
  • You can even add subject headings to your search to refine further.  Remember, this combines these new headings with a boolean AND to lessen results.

Limiting a search can be done in the beginning of your search or after your search, depending on the situation.  There are good reasons for both methods.  Try it out--see how your results change!

Questions to Ask Yourself After a Failed Search

  • Did you misspell any words?
  • Are there too many ANDs? (They reduce results.)
  • Unnecessary addition of author’s name?
  • Punctuation? Used or not used?
  • Truncation error? Wrong symbol? Wrong placement?
  • Incorrect phrasing of title?
  • Did you misremember the title?
  • Inappropriate use of specialty headings?
  • Incorrect use of subheadings?
  • Not using related terms to catch missed concepts?
  • Low-frequency terms?
  • Using general terms instead of subheadings?
  • Accidentally searching title instead of keyword?
  • Incorrectly understanding system defaults (default OR, for example)?
  • Concepts searched not in document?
  • Using synonyms or acronyms?
  • Failure to properly translate research/clinical question into a searchable strategy
  • Selecting the wrong database 
  • Misuse of the Boolean AND and OR
  • Misapplication of limiters (i.e., usually applying too many of the wrong limiters; entering check tags (limiters) as subject headings; applying inappropriately to "full text"
  • Failure to interpret search results and modify strategy appropriately

Credit: Shelley Arvin, Indiana State University

Combining Subject and Keyword Searches

Searching is not a one-step process that has one right answer. Using a combination of searching techniques generates the most relevant results. 

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Is Your Topic Too Broad?

If you are finding too much information, your research topic may be too B R O A D. Consider narrowing it to a more specific:  This can be done by using limiters, specific subject headings, and field qualifiers.

Time Civil War, Iron Age, 1920's, 18th Century
Location Europe, U.S., Denver, urban, eastern
Population age, race, gender, nationality, ethnic group, occupation
Event or Aspect government regulations related to cloning, Battle of the Bulge in WWII
Person or Group college students, Democrats, Republicans

Broad Topic: Global warming

Narrower Topic: How will climate change impact sea levels and the coastal United States?

Is Your Topic Too Narrow?

If you are finding too little information, your topic may be too NARROW, specialized, or current. Use these strategies to broaden your topic.


Generalize your topic.  If your topic is the health effects of fracking on the Ft. Lupton community, broaden your topic to all Colorado communities or the United States.


If your topic is very current, there may not be books or journal articles available yet. Choose an alternative topic that is not so recent.
Database Choice Use other databases in your subject area or consider databases in a related subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective.
Synonyms Use a thesaurus to find synonyms for your topic. When reading background information, note the terminology that is used.
Related Explore related issues.
Expand / Remove Expand or remove: location, time period, aspect, event, population, person/group.

Example of a Narrow Topic:  Does cartoon viewing cause aggression in children under age five?

Broader:  What are the negative effects of TV on children and adolescents?