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Biology: Search Strategies & Key Words

Find scholarly resources in biology

Why Are Keywords Important?

The search engine or the database you use will look for your keywords in specific fields such as the title or abstract.

Databases have controlled vocabulary which helps you search for subject headings and specific words in the title, abstract, etc. Use the Thesaurus and subject terms listed to help you narrow your search and use the words specific to the database.

Pick Key Words On Your Topic

  • Brainstorm your topic and think of important vocabulary (words)
  • Think if there are alternative words authors may use
  • Choose the most basic form of your key words for searching 
  • Do not use contractions, uppercase letters or punctuation
  • Use parentheses for any phrases or words you want to find together  Example: "cell membrane" "genetic code"
  • Spelling Counts! You will miss many results with misspelled words.
  • Leave out articles and prepositions
  • Use descriptive words only if necessary
  • Try different synonyms
  • Put your most important words first. (Word order matters in Google.)
  • Think of your topic and alternate and related terms: climate change, global warming, pollution, acid rain, etc.
  • Try different keywords together.

Search Tips for Most Databases

  • Quotation Marks - use for phrases "plant diversity" "climate change"
  • Use an asterisk for truncation - herbivor*  searches for herbivore, herbivores, herbivory 
  • AND — Find documents that contain all of your search terms in the specified (or any) search field.
  • OR — Find documents that contain any of your search terms in the specified (or any) search field.
  • NOT — Find documents that contain the first, but not the second search term in the specified (or any) search field.
  • Start with keywords and then look for subject headings. Specific subject terms can give you more relevant results.
  • Limit by date, resource type, peer reviewed, full text, etc. Most database searches have a side bar with various limiters. Use them!
  • Do not use punctuation or capital letters.


Helpful Hints for Google

Start simple

 Start by entering a basic name or word. If you're looking for a place or product in a specific location, enter the name along with the town or zip code.

Search with an exact phrase - Use Quotation Marks

Put quotation marks around words "[any word]" to search for an exact phrase in an exact order. Keep in mind that searching with quotes might exclude relevant results. For instance, a search for "Alexander Bell" will miss pages that refer to Alexander G. Bell.

Don't worry about punctuation

Search ignores punctuation. This includes @#%^*()=[]\ and other special characters.

Use descriptive words

The more unique the word, the more likely you are to get relevant results.

Include or ignore words and characters in your search

Highlight common words and characters such as the and & if they are essential to your search (as in a movie or book title) by putting quotation marks "the" around them. You can also use the minus - sign to specify particular items you don't want in your results, like ingredients in a recipe.