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MEERL Program Library Guide

Research & Instruction Librarian

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Maggie Gordon
Douglas Library
Room 520
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Search Strategies

Concepts and Keywords

When using search engines or library databases, choose the search keywords based on your topic's key concepts. Sample keywords in Earth and Energy Resources can include: mineral deposits, geochemistry, heterogeneityrisk assessmentresource extraction, or pipeline-soil interaction. New terminology is constantly emerging, so it is important to look at the keywords associated with relevant articles that you have already found. 

To develop your search question:

  1. Identify your key concepts by writing out your research question and highlighting the main ideas. These become your key concepts, or search terms.
  2. Key concepts can often be described in multiple ways. Identify synonyms for your key concepts to capture even more results. 
  Key Concept Related Terms
Concept 1 ex) climate change ex) global warming, global heating, atmospheric warming, global heating
Concept 2    
Concept 3    

Place quotation marks around two or more words that you would like to keep together as a phrase. For example, "climate change." Next, you will need to translate your keywords into language that a search engine recognizes.  Here are several strategies:

  • Use * to truncate a word. For example, mitigat* will look for mitigation, mitigating, mitigated, and mitigate.
  • A concept can be described by more than one word. Use the operator OR to gather all the records that have either keyword. For example, sands OR silts. You can place these within parentheses to isolate a single concept: (sands OR silts).

As you search, you may want to look for records that have all the concepts. Use the operator AND to join the different concepts.

Here's what a final search string could look like:

("climate change" OR "global warming") AND (mitigat*) AND (sands OR silts)

Selecting Relevant Databases

Queen's University Libraries subscribes to both multidisciplinary and subject-specific databases. When choosing a database, you should consider several factors, such as:

  1. The type of information you are looking for (journal articles, monographs, definitions, standards, chemical properties, maps, raw data)
  2. The academic subject area

Once you have narrowed that down, you can browse QUL's databases alphabetically or by subject area. Each database has a short description about what is included (full-text articles or abstract only), and a date range for coverage. You can also look at the databases recommended by your subject librarian

Review and Refine Your Results

Your first attempt at searching may not produce the results that you were hoping for, and that's okay! You may find that you are getting too many, or too few, results, or that you have had to rework your topic based on the available literature. You can use what you learned in your first search to revise your search strategy. 

It's always a good idea to keep track of the search strings and databases that you've used in a research log. This can be as simple as a word or excel document where you copy and paste your searches and the citations to any relevant results that you get. 

Many databases such as Scopus or Web of Science tag each article with keywords and subjects. When you find a relevant article, take a look at the keywords and subject terms that the database has assigned and use these in your next search string. 

Databases also have many choices for refining or filtering your search results. You may want to try refining by publication date, country, source type (article, book, review), or subject. 

Your subject librarian can also help you to refine your search strategy and target the most relevant results for your topic. Use the "book a consultation" button on the left-hand side to get started. 


Use Omni to search the library's catalogue for books, articles, videos, maps, government documents, music, data sets, open access materials, and more. You can discover materials that are not available at Queen's but that you can freely request either within Omni or through interlibrary loan. 

Boolean Operators

How Library Stuff Works: Boolean Operators (AND OR NOT) by McMaster Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.