Studying Effectively
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Search skills

Literature searching is a structured and organised way of finding information. Developing your search skills, and knowing where to look for information, will help you get the most out of online searching.

Planning your literature search and identifying keywords

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of information available. Planning your search in advance will enable you to quickly and easily find relevant information and save you time in the long run.

The first step is to think about your topic and be clear about what you’re looking for. Break down your topic into its key concepts, and identify keywords you could use to describe them.

Be prepared to try different combinations of keywords to refine or broaden your search depending on your results. You may have to try your search more than once before you find what you’re looking for.

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 Search functions

You can apply a range of search functions to help you find relevant information online.  Use the following resources for some hints and tips.


Truncation enables you to search for a word stem along with all its different endings in one go.

For example:

toast* (finds toast, toasts, toasted, toasting, toastie)

Search Skills: Using truncation



Wildcards are useful when you’re searching for a keyword that has an alternative spelling, e.g. a UK and US variation.

For example: 

appeti#ing (finds appetising and appetizing)

flavo?r (finds flavour and flavor)

Search Skills: Using wildcards

Phrase searching

Phrase searching is useful if you want to search for two or more words adjacent to each other in a specified order.

For example:

"hot chocolate" (finds the exact phrase)

Search Skills: Using phrase searching


Proximity operators

Proximity operators enable you to search for a keyword within a specified number of words of another keyword in any order.

For example:

milk* ADJ2 coffee (finds milky coffee and coffee with milk)

Search Skills: Using proximity operators


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Combining keywords

Having identified your keywords and thought about the search functions you could use, the next step is to consider how to combine your keywords into a structured search strategy.

Using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT)

Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) enable you to refine or broaden your search by combining your keywords. When used correctly they can help you focus your search and save you time.

For example:

bread AND butter (finds both terms - refines your search results)

bread OR loaf (finds either or both terms - broadens your search results)

butter NOT margarine (excludes the second term - refines your search results)

Search Skills: Using Boolean operators and parentheses


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Reviewing results and revising your search

Searching is an iterative proces, which means you're unlikley to find what you're looking for straight away. Be prepared to revise and repeat your searches. Depending on your results, you can adjust your searches in several ways.

Too many results?

Your search may be too broad. Think about how you can refine your search to make it more specific:

  • Can you use a more specific keyword? (e.g. croissant instead of pastry)
  • Can you include additional keywords to focus and narrow your search, and combine these using AND?
    (e.g. bread AND butter AND jam instead of bread AND butter)
  • Can you apply search functions, such as phrase searching, to make your keywords more specific
    (e.g. “hot chocolate”)
  • Can you search for your keywords in specific parts of a reference?
    (e.g. titles or abstracts only) 
  • Can you apply limits to your search to filter the results?
    (e.g. publication year or language) 


Too few results?

Your search may be too specific. Think about how you can broaden your search to find additional results:

  • Can you use alternative terms (known as synonyms) to describe the same or a similar topic, and combine these using OR?
    (e.g. butter OR margarine OR oil)
  • Can you use the database’s thesaurus, if there is one, to help you identify preferred terms (known as subject headings)?
  • Can you apply search functions to look for different variations of your keywords?
    Such as truncation
    (e.g. toast* to find toast, toasts, toasted, toasting, toastie)
    Or wildcards
    (e.g. appeti#ing to find appetising or appetizing)
  • Are you using the most appropriate subject database for your topic? Go to your subject guide and check the subject databases in your discipline

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Saving searches and creating alerts

It's a good idea to save your searches, especially if you’ve spent time getting your search strategy right. You can also save specific references found in your search results.


Saving searches on

Sign in to NUsearch with your university username and password and save searches and specific references in My Favourites. 

For further help go to:

NUsearch UK: Using My Favourites

NUsearch China: FAQ - Can I see my search history?

NUsearch Malaysia: FAQs - Can I store search queries / item records?


Saving searches on
subject databases

To use the save search features on a subject database you will need to create a personal account:

  • Look for one of the following options, or similar, on the database home page: Create account, Register, Sign in, My account.
  • Enter an email address and create a password. Some databases may also ask you to create a username.
  • Consent to the privacy policy.

Go to Searching subject databases for further guidance

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Planning a search in your subject area

The following resources will help you get started with planning and structuring a literature search in your subject area.

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Applying search skills across different resources


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Further support



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