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IWU OCLS Tutorials: Develop a Search Strategy - Identify Main Concepts & Keywords


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Convert Question to Keywords

Combine Keywords

Keywords vs. Subject Terms

Additional Tools






Download the OCLS Research Strategy Worksheet

  • Break down your topic into main ideas.
  • Keep track of what searches you have tried. 
  • No need to print the worksheet.
  • You can fill out the worksheet on your computer. 


Convert Questions to Keywords


Unlike Google, most databases do not use a natural language search. You need to break your question down into keywords and terms to create an effective search. 

Example Question: "What is the impact of having the media in the courtroom?"

  1. Identify Keywords: (typical keywords will be nouns and verbs)
  • Impact
  • Media
  • Courtroom 
  1. Identify alternative words for keywords: (synonyms and words that express similar concepts)
  • Media: journalist, journalism, newspaper, news, cameras
  • Courtroom: court, trial
  • Impact: affect, effect, influence


A thesaurus can help you think of other search terms.


Now that you have identified some keywords, you will need to think about how to combine them for the most effective search. 



Combine Keywords



I entered all the keywords and alternate keywords "impact affect effect influence media journalist journalism newspapers news cameras court trial" into the database, but I didn't find anything useful. What am I doing wrong?


Don't panic.

You just need to use these terms along with Boolean search operators so the database knows how it should combine them. 


Boolean Searching

Boolean Searching is a type of searching that allows you to combine keywords using operators like AND, OR, and NOT. 



AND narrows a search by telling the database that ALL keywords used must be found in an article in order for it to appear in your results list. Search for two or more concepts that interest you by combining descriptive keywords with AND. 



OR broadens a search by telling the database that any of the words it connects are acceptable. This is particularly helpful when you are searching for synonyms



NOT narrows your search by telling the database to eliminate all terms that follow it from your search results. This can be useful when you are interested in a very specific aspect of a topic but wants to weed out issues you aren't planning to write about. 

Use NOT with caution as good items can be eliminated from the results retrieved. 

For example:

  • Boolean AND search: media AND court
    • All results will include both words media and court
  • Boolean OR search: media OR reporter OR news
    • Each result will have at least one of the words, but not necessarily all. This option returns more results than when using AND
  • Boolean NOT search: media NOT newspapers
    • The results will include the word media, but will not include anything with the word newspapers



Keywords vs. Subject Terms



  • They are important words or phrases that describe the key concepts of your topic.
  • When you search for keywords, the database looks in any part of the article (e.g., title, abstract, author, text, etc.) for the keyword.
  • Using keywords can return too many or too few results because the database is only searching for the word or phrase you typed in.
  • Many times, the search results are irrelevant and not about your subject. 


Subject Terms


  • Subject terms are words that have been given to an article and identify its subject and main topics.

  • These words are pre-defined by the database.

  • You must know what the Subject Term is to search for them.

  • Subject Terms can be found in the databases’ Subject Terms or Thesaurus link, usually found in the top menu.


OCLS QUICKsearch Listed under each article Subjects
Business Source Complete  Top Menu Thesaurus
Academic Search Complete Top Menu Subject Terms

ABI/Inform Complete

Beside Advanced Search Thesaurus


  • Search results will be more relevant than a keyword search since the articles will be about your subject. 

Additional Tools


Other ways to broaden or narrow your search:


Phrase Searching

When you are searching for a phrase or term (that is longer than one word), you need to put it in quotations, so the database knows to search for those words together, 

  • Placing quotes " " around two or more words will tell the database to search for that phrase. 
  • Example: "mass media"



  • Broadens your search. 
  • This search is used to find words with alternate endings or spellings.
  • An asterisk (*) is used as the truncation symbol. 
  • Examples:
    • Court* will find court, courts, courtroom, etc. 
    • Journal* will find journal, journals, journalist, journalism, etc. 
    • News* will find news, newspaper, newspapers, etc. 


Complex Searching

  • This is sometimes referred to as nested searching. 
  • This can be a combination of your search terms with Boolean operators, plus truncation and phrase searching. 
  • Example: (impact OR influence) AND "mass media" AND court*
  • This tells the database to do the following:
    • Search for the word impact or influence in the parenthesis. 
    • Search for the phrase within the quotation marks, mass media
    • Search for the truncation of words that start with court. 
    • Combine all three searches with the Boolean operator AND



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