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Research and the Library: Using Resources WISely: Advanced Searching

This tutorial and module will guide you through the process of library research.

Advanced Boolean

A useful way to use Boolean Operators is to group them together. Using AND, OR, and NOT in groupings will provide more results in one search.

(climate change or greenhouse effect)  AND (food security OR food insecurity OR food sustainability)


Truncation and Wildcards are useful to find variations or alternative spellings of a word.

  • Truncation uses an asterisk (*) to capture variations of a word. Make sure you put it in the best position to retrieve as many variations as possible.
    • ​eviron* will return results for environment, environmental, environ, etc.​​
  • Wildcards use a question mark (?) to represent a single character, anywhere in the word.  It is most useful for alternative spellings of a word. 
    • wom?n will search for women and woman
    • gr?y would return both gray and grey

Subject Headings

The "Subject" limiter in the databases use the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).  Subject Headings are a type of controlled vocabulary or thesaurus.  Subject Headings are more specific than basic keyword searching.  

As you can see below, using the Advanced Search feature allows you to search in groups and by different fields (methods). This Subject Heading search filtered the results to only give LCSH records. In this database, the term is SU subject terms; however, different databases may use different words for Subject Headings. For example, some databases use the terms DE (descriptor EXACT)

Screen shot of a search and search results in Academic Search Complete showing a SU Subject Terms search with 3 subject terms connected using and and not.  They are women or female or woman or females and education or higher education not men.

Controlled Vocabulary in Databases

Another useful way to refine search terms is by using the controlled vocabulary for each database. These controlled vocabularies help you find the terms for your searches that bring back the best results. The terms used in the controlled vocabularies function similarly to #hashtags for social media. If you search the correct hashtag, you can find other posts on a given subject, but if you alter the terminology, the result is not the same.

You will encounter many different names for these vocabularies, including Thesaurus, Subject Terms, and CINAHL Headings. In an Ebsco database this controlled vocabulary is on the main search page at the top. To access the controlled vocabulary in a ProQuest database, you must first click on the "Advanced Search" tab. See the examples below.

Example of EBSCO Controlled Vocabulary

In the EBSCO Database, CINAHL, popular in Nursing, you see "CINAHL Subject Headings" at the top of the main page. It is this way in most EBSCO Databases.

While many students initially use the term "breast cancer," a search within CINAHL Subject Headings shows that articles in the database actually use "breast neoplasms," as you can see in the screenshots below. 

Screenshot of CINAHL Complete Database with CINAHL Subject Headings feature circled at top. Search for "breast cancer" brings back recommendation to use "breast neoplasms" instead.

Screenshot of CINAHL Complete Thesaurus Tree View for Breast Neoplasms. Arrow pointing to neoplasms with added caption that this is a broader term, and arrow pointed to the three specific aspects of breast neoplasms with caption that these are narrower terms.


These tools also display broader or narrower terms to help you expand or focus your search. In this example, you'll see that the broader term for "breast neoplasms" is "neoplasms" and one of the narrower terms is "Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome." This could be helpful if you are getting too few or too many results with your current search.

Example of ProQuest Controlled Vocabulary

After searching for "intimate partner violence" in the Psychology Database Thesaurus from ProQuest, you can see that this database uses the term "domestic violence instead. These screenshots give you an idea of how the thesaurus looks in ProQuest Databases. Remember, you have to go to the "Advanced Search" option at the top to find the Thesaurus.

Screenshot of ProQuest Database with Advanced Search and Thesaurus tabs circled at the top

Screenshot of ProQuest Thesaurus results for "intimate partner violence" with use "domestic violence" circled in red. Options to broaden or narrow search with radial buttons and option to add terms to search string with and or not.


These tools also display broader or narrower terms to help you expand or focus your search. In this example, you'll see that one of the broader terms for "domestic violence" is "Crimes against persons" and one of the narrower terms is "Adult abuse & neglect." This could be helpful if you are getting too few or too many results with your current search.

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