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Chemistry information resources, both electronic and print, available at Brandeis University.

Common search issues

You got results, but they’re not relevant:

  • Are there more precise or more specific words you can try instead?
  • Are the words used in a different context than you meant them? Try some synonyms or related terms. 
  • If your results are sorted by date or citation count, try sorting by relevance or best match instead.

You got results that are vaguely related, but they’re all over the place:

  • If you got a lot of results, try adding a word or two to your search to make it more specific.
  • If that gives you no results, try replacing some of the words instead of adding them.

You got few or no results:

  • If you used a lot of search terms, try removing one and see what happens.
  • If you searched for something very specific, try something that’s related, but a little broader (i.e. exercise instead of running).

Consider your search terms

Which words you search for and how you enter them into databases can have a big impact on the number of search results you get and their relevance to your topic.

Taking the time to choose your search terms carefully can save you time in the long run, because you’ll end up with better results.

Brainstorm first!

The first step is to brainstorm some keywords -- words and short phrases that are most likely to show up in books and articles about your topic. 

It helps to include synonyms and similar phrases, since different sources might use different language to describe the same concepts. 

If you're researching how women talk to their doctors, you might consider keywords like:

  • Women, female, gender
  • Communication, conversation, dialogue
  • Doctors, medical professionals, health care providers

Keep an eye out for more search terms

As you search, keep an eye out for more keywords. 

  • What words and phrases are coming up in your search results?
  • Which subject terms* are tagged to relevant articles? (See below for more info)

*Subject terms are tags or labels that an expert assigned to the article that sum up what it's about. Some databases also include author-supplied keywords. These terms are often linked and will lead to similar articles, providing you with even better results. 

Here's what subject terms look like in one of our databases (note: MeSH stands for Medical Subject Headings):

 MeSH Terms: Communication, Physician-patient relations, General Practitioners/education, General practitioners/psychology

Advanced tips for searching academic databases

Sometimes you can get what you need just by typing relevant search terms into a database. If that doesn't work, there are some strategies you can use to tell the database exactly what you're looking for. 

Use AND & OR

AND & OR (called "Boolean operators") are commands that tell the database how to look up your terms. 


If you want to find information about doctors' communication, try searching for adolescents AND anxiety. This tells the database that you only want articles that mention both adolescents and anxiety.


OR gives the database alternative words/phrases to try. For example, searching for adolescents OR teens will find articles with either one of those terms. 

Use OR with synonyms to broaden your results. Searching for "adolescence or teens" will usually give you more results than just one of these terms, since different sources might use different terms.

Use parentheses around similar terms: (adolescence OR teens) AND (anxiety OR stress).

Truncation and phrase searching

Most, but not all, databases recognize these commands:

Use the asterisk (*) to search for all possible endings of a word. For example, "therap*" will find therapies, therapies, therapist, therapists, theraputic, therapeutically, etc.

Use quotation marks (“ ”) to search for a phrase. For example, "cognitive behavioral therapy" will find those words in that exact order.