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Searching for Articles & Using Databases

Questions to Ask Yourself After a Failed Search

  • Did you misspell any words?
  • Are there too many ANDs? (They reduce results.)
  • Unnecessary addition of the author’s name?
  • Punctuation? Used or not used?
  • Truncation error? Wrong symbol? Wrong placement?
  • Incorrect phrasing of the 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 the title instead of keyword?
  • Incorrectly understanding system defaults (default OR, for example)?
  • Concepts searched not in a 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

-- Shelley Arvin, Indiana State University


Troubleshooting Your Searches


Too few results?

If you are finding too little information, your topic may be too narrow, specialized, or current. In that case use these:

Strategies to Broaden a Topic
Generalize Generalize your topic.  If your topic is the health effects of fracking on a specific community, broaden your topic to all communities in a state or the United States.
Currency 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, or if permitted, use newspapers which are updated daily.
Database Choice Other databases in your subject area or consider databases in a related subject area 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?


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

Finding too Much Information

If you are finding too much information, and you're having a hard time finding exactly what you're looking for, your research topic may be too broad. Consider narrowing it to a more specific topic. This can be done by using limiters, specific subject headings, and field qualifiers.


Context and Examples for Narrowing
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?