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Information Literacy Course International Relations: Search techniques and search tips

Too many results?

-  use more specific search terms.

-  add an extra search term to your search query (AND)

-  search in specific search fields (title words, subject headings)

-  use limiters (e.g. between specific years, or peer-reviewed articles only)

-  search for an exact phrase (use double quotation marks)

Take care not to exclude an important aspect of your subject!

Too few or no results?

-  try to broaden your search terms (search with OR, or an overarching search term)

-  try to make your search less precise (e.g. search using “all words”)

-  use synonyms 

translate the search terms

-  use Truncation/Wildcards 

-  use suggested subject headings


You can use the search operators AND, OR and NOT to combine search terms. These are the most commonly known and used operators.

The operators AND and NOT limit the number of results from a search. The operator OR does the opposite; it increases the number of results.


- Endangered AND birds : combines these two words

- Endangered OR birds : searches for the words endangered OR birds. This search will produce more results. (Tip: the operator “OR” can also be used to include different spellings and translations or synonyms in the search).

- Endangered NOT birds : searches for the word ‘endangered’ and excludes the word ‘birds’

To see how this works, go to the website Move your cursor over the operators AND, OR and NOT to see how they determine your search.

You can also combine more than two search terms. Use brackets to indicate the priority. For example (Money OR inflation) AND banking.

Exact phrases

Phrase searching is a search technique for topics that are represented by multiple words.

When you want to find publications about the United Nations and type united nations in SmartCat's quick search box and search Libraries Worldwide you will find almost 5 million results (4,781,067 on september 6, 2015).

One of the retrieved publications is Two nations indivisible : Mexico, the United States, and the road ahead.

This publication is not about the United Nations and is not relevant for your project.

When you put quotes around the phrase and type "united nations"you limit your results to records where the words are next to each other and the sequence is correct.

SmartCat's quick search searching in Libraries Worldwide retrieved 676,805 results on September, 6, 2015.

Wildcards and truncation

Truncation (or wildcard symbols) can be used to broaden your search and include different spellings.

To do this, you shorten the search term to a word stem and, depending on which database you are using, you type either a question mark or asterisk after the word stem. The results will then include various endings and spellings.

If you search SmartCat with the search term environ?, the results will include publications with ‘environment’, ‘environmental’ and ‘environmentally’ in the text and/or title.

If you search SmartCat with labo?r, the results will include ‘labour’ as well as ‘labor’.

In SmartCat the symbol # replaces one letter in a word. For example, if you search with organi#ation, the results will include the British English spelling (organisation) as well as the American English spelling (organization).

Database searching: a short video