Database search: how to use search terms?

Each database has its own method to make the contents of that database accessible and consultable. Most databases use "Basic search" and "Advanced search".

Via "Basic search" you can filter the search results after performing a search.

"Advanced search" allows you to choose more specific search criteria before performing a search.

Before you start a search, select your search terms. These are the words/terms you enter in the search screen of a database.

Brainstorm on the key concepts of the question and related terms. For example, put in a list for each term (example: parents) next to each other what are related terms (parental support), broader terms (family) or narrower terms (father, mother). All these search terms can be used for your final search.


We'll show you a few techniques to help you use search terms:


Non-significant words

Avoid the use of non-significant (common) words which in general cannot be searched for (conjunctions, articles or prepositions).


Truncation (also called stemming)

This means that a word doesn’t need to be typed in its whole form. Through truncation you use a special character (a wildcard or joker) to replace 1 or more letters or numbers in a word. This widens your search field and is also useful because the spelling of words can vary.

Symbols to be used (wildcards or jokers):

* : zero or more characters

$ or ?: zero or one character

The truncated search term must contain at least 3 characters.

Left, middle and right truncation are possible, a few examples:


  • Left truncation: *management > management , mismanagement, ...


  • Middle truncation: colo$r > color, colour

                     organi?ation > organisation (English), organization (American)

                    wom?n > women, woman


  • Right truncation: depress* > depression, depressed, depressed, ...

                                    child* > child, children, childrens, childhood, ...

  • Combinations: Jans$en$ > Jans, Janszen, Jansens, Janssens, ...

                                 colo$r* > color, colour, colorless, colorless, coloring, coloring, ...


Phrase searching

You do this by placing words in a certain order between quotation marks, indicating that these words belong together (in that order) and should not be searched for separately.

Example: "physical therapy”.


Boolean operators

The 3 most important Boolean operators that can be used to  search on the internet are AND, OR and NOT. These operators are used as conjunctions to combine or exclude search terms in a search, resulting in more focused and productive results. The use of these operators can significantly reduce or expand the number of results delivered. Boolean operators are useful to save time by searching for more targeted results that are better suited to your needs, eliminating unsuitable results.

Almost every search engine or database uses the Boolean operators AND, OR and NOT. In most search engines these operators are case sensitive and should be used in capitals.

How to use the Boolean operators:

AND: requires both terms to be taken into account in each result. If one of the terms is in the search result and the other is not, the item will not be included in the resulting list (limits the search).

Example: You are looking for documents that are about apples and pears (so both terms appear in the document). Your search = apples AND pears.

OR: the search result for each term separately or both search terms together will be displayed (broadens the search).

Example: You are looking for documents that are about apples or pears (at least one of these terms appears in the document). Your search = apples OR pears.

NOT: the first search term you enter will be searched and then all search results that contain the search term after the Boolean operator "NOT" will be deleted from the search result. (Be careful with the use, because this action to limit the search can be too exclusive and eliminate good search results).

Example: You are looking for documents that are about apples, but the term pears should not be used. Your search = apples NOT pears.




Important to remember

Improve your search constantly.

Did you find better search terms? Add them.

Do you get too many results? Search more specifically.

Do you get too little? Search more general, with better search terms, or in a more suitable place.

Do you get all kinds of results that are about something completely different (= noise)? Try to find out which search term or action results in noise and adjust the search again.



Source reference 2016.pdf (consulted on Sep21, 2023) (consulted on Sep21, 2023) (consulted on Sep21, 2023)

Wegwijzer wetenschappelijk werk: bronnen voor papers en verhandelingen in de bedrijfseconomie / Daniël Coninckx, Luc Van Ootegem; Published in 2006 in Leuven by Lannoo Campus.



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Last modified Oct. 31, 2023, 11:24 a.m.