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Distance Education Guide: Searching Tips

Resources Guide for Distance Education Students

Keyword Searching Tips

ID Your Keywords and Synonyms

Keywords and Synonyms

Steps to Success:

  1. Keywords: Identify the most important words for your topic - these are your keywords.
  2. Synonyms & Related Forms: Brainstorm synonyms (same meaning, different word) and related forms (same root, different word or contextually related) so that you're armed with several different searching options.
  3. Test Your Terms: Try different combinations of words while searching a database to find the most relevant sources.


Research question:  How does urban agriculture benefit a community?

Key concepts:

  • urban
  • agriculture
  • benefit

Synonyms/ related concepts

urban agriculture benefit
community farming prosperity
city gardening social aspects
town food production economic development

This video was produced by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Library.

Fine-tuning Your Search

Additional Search Tips

  • Phrase Search - Use quotation marks " " to search an exact phrase.
    • Example: "affordable care act"
  • Truncation - Use an asterisk to find variations of a word. An asterisk after the root of the word will find all variations of that word, including singular and plural.
    • Example: environment* searches environments, environmental, environmentalist, etc.
  • Grouping or Nesting Words - Use parenthesis to group search terms together.
    • Example: (teaching OR learning) and communication

Using Multiple Keywords and Subject HeadingsRefining Your Search

Tips for Searching Databases-Using Multiple Keywords and Subject Headings

Most library databases work on similar search principles: keyword/subject searching and the use of Boolean operators ( AND, OR, NOT) and truncation symbols ( * or $, depending on database)

Note: These are general guidelines. Please consult the Help screens in each database you use to determine what features are available and how they might be different from those described below, e.g., the truncation symbol may be a dollar sign ($) instead of an asterisk (*).

Identify keywords, both specific and more general, for your topic, then think of synonyms that could be substituted for your keywords. Remember to search for a broader subject term if you do not find any articles using a very specific term. Also, more general articles will often provide you with important information and context for your research.  Example: looking for the title of a painting may not give you any hits, but looking for material about the artist would, and within that, you will find context. 

The name of the game in searching is to try different terms—you will find more information, often on the same topic,  just by using synonyms or broader terms.

Once you have some keywords and their synonyms, form a search statement and type it into the database search box. If you are using more than one keyword, you will need to place Boolean operators between the keywords, i.e., place and between keywords unless they form a phrase; place or between synonyms or "like" terms; use not to exclude terms. Examples:

  • paintings and jesus christ and crucifixion
  • (paintings or drawings) and jesus christ and crucifixion
  • (paintings or drawings) and jesus christ not crucifixion

Use the truncation symbol to search for variant endings of a word, example:

(paint* or draw*) and jesus christ and crucifi*  Use of the asterisk, or truncation symbol, will allow for automatic searching of all variations, such as painting, paintings, painter, painted, etc.

Keywords vs. Subject Headings: There is a Difference!

  • the use of subject headings (also known as descriptors) is the method by which an index or database has designated "official" terms or phrases for a topic
  • searching by keyword often can return many results, some of which may be irrelevant to your topic; subject searching focuses the search and returns fewer results; most, if not all, of them will be directly relevant to your search
  • keyword searching searches many fields, e.g., title, abstract, subject headings, whereas subject heading searching searches only the subject heading field
  • search first by keyword, find records which are relevant to your search, then look for the subject headings listed at bottom of the record. There are often several -- jot them down, then execute a subject search using those terms.
  • most indexes allow both keyword and subject searching