Common literature search techniques

When you carry out a literature study, you will need to make extensive use of literature databases. This page contains information about the common search techniques that are applicable to most databases and search engines.


Various databases assign keywords to publications. These give a brief overview of what the publication is about. The keywords can be used to search for a topic.

Stop words

Although stop words are common words, they are not relevant to the search. Examples of these types of words are articles and prepositions.

Combining search terms

Boolean operators can be used to combine several different topics in one search. The main operators are AND, OR and NOT:

Booleanse operatoren

The search result must include all of the specified terms.
The search result must include either one of the specified terms or both of the specified terms.
The search result must not include the specified term.

Nesting terms

When it comes to more complex searches, it may be helpful to use brackets to nest search terms.
For example: (constitutional OR principle) AND review

Fixed word combinations

Double quotation marks (“...”) indicate that the specified search terms should appear next to each other in the specified order.

For example: “elementary education”, “social media”

Proximity operators (NEAR, NEXT, ADJ)

In some databases, it is possible to specify the distance (or number of words) between two search terms, so that variants of the compound terms may also be found.

For example: information ADJ3 retrieval will retrieve any combination of these words in phrases that have a maximum of three words between the two terms, such as retrieval of relevant scientific information.

Truncation of words

The method for shortening search terms is called ‘truncation’. The ‘truncation character’ replaces part of the word and allows you to search singular and plural terms at the same time.

For example: using gene* will retrieve gene, genes, genetics, generation


Masking is when a special character, also called a ‘wild card’ or a ‘joker’, is used to replace one or more letters/numbers within different spelling variations.

For example: wom#n, organi#ation, behavio#r

Search fields

Advanced search has been designed to search within fields, e.g., title words, or author names. Using multiple search fields at the same time will retrieve fewer results, but they will be more relevant.


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