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Techniques of Research : How do I... (searching journals/databases, etc.)

A guide for Graduate Student writing and research.

How Do I...?

The first step in searching is to determine exactly what your topic is, and the keywords or descriptors (the latest name for official subject headings) under which you might find citations for the topic. This will assist in eliminating irrelevant results. The following points outline the steps to follow:

  • Break your topic into concepts; these will translate into keywords
  • Link your keywords using AND to find only documents containing all your keywords
  • Think of synonyms for your keywords and link these using OR to find any one of your alternative terms (see further instructions in the opposite box).
  • Think about using truncation (* or ?) to catch all forms of a word, eg. educat* (see further instructions below)
  • If you get too many results, limit your search by adding more keywords linked by AND, think of more specific keywords, or limit by other options (e.g. terms in the article title).
  • Look at the subject terms that have been used for a relevant item you have found. These subject terms can be used to search for similar resources.

Some tools that will allow you for further structure your search are:

Truncation & wildcards  This method of searching allows you to capture all forms of a word.

Proximity Searching  This method of searching will look for one term within a specified distance from another. The examples document above shows how to use this feature in ScienceDirect.

Limits  Limits allow you to narrow the focus of your database search. Your search will be limited according to the values you select. You can use more than one limit if more than one is available.

Using a thesaurus within a database Some databases have developed their own collection of terms called a thesaurus or a controlled vocabulary.   You can choose to use the thesaurus to find relevant terms for your search rather than search by keyword.


 In some of these terms, there are singular and plural possibilities for each term, such as diet or diets. To handle this, electronic databases allow you to use truncation, a way of inputting the terms which allows for alternative forms of the terms.

We will introduce you to three different electronic database interfaces, and show you the various methods they use for inputting these terms. These databases are:

Gale Research Databases  

EBSCO host Databases

OhioLINK research databases

Truncation Symbols

Gale Research Databases * (for single and multiple characters)

OhioLINK ? (for a single character)

OhioLINK $ (for multiple characters)

Therefore, in Gale or EBSCO, we could input: diet* (for diet or diets or dietitians or dietetics) or attention deficit disorder* (for attention deficit disorder or attention deficit disorders)

In OhioLINK, we could input: diet? (for diet or diets) or diet$ (for dietetics or dietitians)

Truncation even works inside words. For instance, wom*n or wom?n would find both woman or women.

Boolean Search Operators

There are three basic boolean search operators: OR, AND, NOT. These do not have to be input in upper case, but can be typed in lower case. In general, you do not have to capitalize any words when typing search terms.

 OR links together keywords which are synonyms, and sees whether any of them is in a database record (a single citation).

For instance:

diet* or dietetic* or sugar or food additive*

might find diets in article 1, sugar in article 2, food additives in article 3, and dietetic in article 4. As you add more terms together with "or," the number of search results usually enlarges.

AND compares the search results of any two terms or sets of synonyms, and lists only the articles which contain both terms or at least one term from each set of synonyms. For instance, if we were to put in the terms used above to illustrate the synonyms for the large concepts, we could type in two sets of terms:

hyperactivity or adhd or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder* or attention deficit disorder*

The output (called a "set") might be: s1 3578 (hits)

diet* or dietetic* or sugar or food additive*

The output for these terms might be: s2 758 (hits)

We then can use the AND operator to combine these sets:

s1 and s2 54 (hits)

This set of 54 hits might contain these citations:

article 1 contains: (hyperactivity AND sugar)

article 2 contains: (adhd AND sugar)

article 3 contains (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder AND diets)

NOT (sometimes input as AND NOT) is used to exclude a search term or previously looked at set of citations from the current set of citations that you want to retrieve. For instance, if you looked at the s3 below, and then decided to input "sugars" to possibly find more articles, you could type in s1 and sugars, resulting in a s4. Then you could type in s4 not s3 to exclude the articles you previously looked at.

hyperactivity NOT sugar would find all the citations which included the word hyperactivity, but would exclude any citations which included the word sugar.


This is a way to include sets of synonyms in parentheses ( ), and type the AND operator between the sets, so that you only have to input one line (instead of inputting several search statements, with several set numbers). This is especially useful in databases which only allow you to type in one line for a search statement, and do not let you use a search history. Here is a sample:

(hyperactivity or adhd or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder* or attention deficit disorders*) and (diet* or dietetic* or sugar or food additives)

This method allows you to reuse the results of the entire search statement only. Individual words or subsets would have to be typed in again as illustrated in the example given above in the "Sets and Search History" section. You would have to re-input the sets of synonyms as we originally did it above in s1 or s2.

Another example of nesting which also shows how the NOT operator could be useful is this: you want to find articles about social or special interest clubs, but you don t want articles dealing with health clubs, sports clubs, or athletic clubs. Type in:

clubs not (athletic or sport* or health or golf or baseball or tennis or hockey or football).

This should result in articles related to your topic. Or, you could be more specific and input:

clubs and (social or dog or animal or cat or fraternal)

 Using the Thesaurus Feature

In computer vocabulary, a thesaurus is the list of official subject terms ("descriptors" or "subject headings") that the indexers assign to the articles as they enter them into the database. Some OhioLINK databases have thesauri built into them. When you bring up these databases (such as Academic Search Complete or CINAHL), there is usually a tab above the search box marked "subject terms" or a check box for "suggest subject terms".  This means that when you type in a keyword, OhioLINK takes you into the thesaurus, and matches your terms with the correct subject term/descriptor the database uses.  Sometimes a heading will display with these choices behind it:

Search - find records with this term as a subject heading.

Focus- find records with this term identified as a major subject heading

Explore - view this subject heading's hierarchical or "tree" view in the thesaurus

Expand - find records with this term as a subject heading or with a subject heading of any narrower term in the thesaurus.

Expand/Focus - find records with this term as a major subject heading or with a major subject heading of any narrower term in the thesaurus.

Scholarly journals are also referred to as academic journals, peer-reviewed, juried or refereed (reviewed by experts). While the following characteristics are not a guarantee they do help provide some guidelines as to whether an item is considered a scholarly journal or magazine.

  • Usually the word "journal" in the title is a good indication.

  • Scholarly journals often contain articles that describe results of original research. These articles usually include bibliographies, references, charts, tables, illustrations, diagrams or graphs.

  • An editorial board or list of reviewers who select articles for publication may be given.

  • Author credentials are mentioned at the beginning or end of an article.

  • Scholarly journals are commonly indexed in publications such as PsycINFO, CINAHL, ERIC and MLA. (Many of our OhioLINK databases.)

  • Articles in scholarly journals may be distinctly organized into sections such as Purpose, Abstract, Literature Review, Method of Study, Results, Conclusion.

  • Compare "American Heritage", which is a magazine with "American Journal of Health Education", which is a scholarly journal.

Quick Checklist

Journal Articles

Magazine Articles


written in language of the field for a scholarly audience 

written for the general population (non-technical)


material submitted by researchers and experts of a particular subject area

writing done by writers or editors employed by the publication


research reports, conference proceedings

misc. articles, news, variety of subject


contains bibliographic references

few or no bibliographical references


previewed and reviewed by referees, other experts in the field and/or editors

reviewed by editors only


simple, plain layout with illustrations or graphs to supplement writing - little or no advertising

complex, artistic layout, often with a glossy look and lots of pictures and graphics - lots of advertising


scholarly or professional group

for-profit company

Remember, many databases will allow you to limit your search to scholarly or academic journals by simply checking a box. In this case, they can also be called refereed.

In academic publishing, the goal of peer review is to assess the quality of articles submitted for publication in a scholarly journal. Before an article is deemed appropriate to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, it must undergo the following process:

  •  The author of the article must submit it to the journal editor who forwards the article to experts in the field. Because the reviewers specialize in the same scholarly area as the author, they are considered the author’s peers (hence “peer review”).
  •  These impartial reviewers are charged with carefully evaluating the quality of the submitted manuscript.
  •  The peer reviewers check the manuscript for accuracy and assess the validity of the research methodology and procedures.
  •  If appropriate, they suggest revisions. If they find the article lacking in scholarly validity and rigor, they reject it. 

    Because a peer-reviewed journal will not publish articles that fail to meet the standards established for a given discipline, peer-reviewed articles that are accepted for publication exemplify the best research practices in a field.


To determine whether or not the article yo ufound is a peer-reviewed article, consider the following:

Is the journal in which you found the article published or sponsored by a professional scholarly society, professional association, or university academic department? Does it describe itself as a peer-reviewed publication? (To know that, check the journal's website). 

Did you find a citation for it in one of the  databases that includes scholarly publications? (EBSCOhost Academic Search Complete, PsycINFO, etc.)?  Read the database description to see if it includes scholarly publications.

Did you limit your search to scholarly or peer-reviewed publications?

Is there an abstract (summary) at the beginning of the article?

Is the tone of the article thoughtful, restrained and serious?

Does the article have footnotes or citations of other sources?

Does the article have a bibliography or list of references at the end?

Are the author's credentials listed?

Is the topic of the article narrowly focused and explored in depth?

Is the article based on either original research or authorities in the field(as opposed to personal opinion)?

Is the article written for readers with some prior knowledge of the subject?

If your field is social or natural science, is the article divided into sections with headings such as those listed below?

  • Introduction
  • Theory or Background
  • Methods
  • Discussion
  • Literature review
  • Subjects
  • Results
  • Conclusion

What is a literature review?

A literature review provides a critical evaluation of the existing literature on a particular topic. The literature review is the foundation of your thesis.

What is its purpose?

A literature review provides the context for your research, by examining and acknowledging the work of others, and allowing you to establish your position within your discipline's scholarly communication.  It shows an examiner that you are familiar with significant research in your area and justifies the importance of your topic.

How do I undertake a literature review?

A literature review is a thorough examination of research already conducted on the topic and should include a broad selection of materials published in your topic area.

You should be careful to include the most current research on the topic, and avoid outdated or discredited material. It is also essential that you present a broad and unbiased review. You should analyse, evaluate and contrast existing research, the design and methods, and the outcomes. It may be arranged in chronological order, or by viewpoint, and will present your position in relation to the literature reviewed.

A literature review should address:

What research has already been undertaken in this field/on this topic?
What were the results and conclusions of this research?
How do the findings from other studies inform the investigation or study of my topic?
What gaps exist in the literature that will justify my research and ensure the research hasn't been done before?

As soon as you have more than a handful of references, it is important to have an effective filing system. Establish this at the start of the research project and it will save alot of unecessary worry in the future.

There are a number of different products you may choose to use, some of which are mentioned on this page. In general, bibliographic management software will allow you to:

  • Create a database of your references
    This will allow you to store, manage and search for your references
  • Import citation data
    Transfer references from other databases into your library
  • Insert references into your documents
    Integrate with your word processor (e.g MS Word, OpenOffice) to insert in-text citations and generate a bibliography
  • Output bibliographies in any style
    Build lists of references cited in a paper and create bibliographies in a number of different styles
  • Collaborate with others
    Share your references with others