Database Search Tips

This helpful guide, adopted with permission from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, highlights common search techniques.

What to look for

  • Different databases interpret searches differently. A common variation is how databases recognize phrases.
  • Some assume that words typed next to each other should be searched as phrases.
  • Others automatically put a Boolean AND between your search terms, requiring that all the words be present, but not necessarily adjacent to each other.
  • These searches can retrieve very different results.

Phrase searching tips

Most databases allow you to specify that adjacent words be searched as phrases.

  • Using parentheses or quotes around search words is a common way to do phrase searching, but not all databases or search engines use them.
  • Example:  "genetic engineering"
  • Hint: It is often very easy to do phrase searching from the Advanced or Guided search in a database.

Proximity operators

  • Many databases allow you to specify that the words you are searching are within a certain proximity of each other.
  • Proximity operators are more specific than Boolean operators and make your search more precise.

Proximity operator examples

Proximity operators also vary by database, but some common ones include:

w# = with

  • With specifies that words appear in the order you type them in.
  • Substitute the # with a number of words that may appear in between. If no number is given, then it specifies an exact phrase.
  • Examples:
    genetic w engineering (searches the phrase genetic engineering)
    Hillary w2 Clinton (retrieves Hillary Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, etc.)

n# = near

  • Near specifies that the words may appear in any order.
  • Substitute the # with a number of words that may appear in between.
  • Examples:
    cloning n3 human (retrieves cloning of humans, human cloning, etc.)

Consult the database Help screens to find out how to search by phrases or to specify proximity.