Search tip #10: Searching in a database

Published on
January 14, 2020

In previous search tips, we showed you how to choose the right database for your literature search. But did you know that every database has its own set of rules and tricks? You want to check these before doing your search.

Choose a database

We covered how to choose the most relevant database for your topic in our search tip #4. In short, you have two types of databases: multidisciplinary databases, such as Scopus or Web of Science, and subject-specific databases, such as Agricola or SocIndex.

Build your search query

Formulate your search question and identify the main concepts and associated search terms. Combine them with Boolean operators, such as AND/OR. These are the most common used operators in every database. If you want to exclude terms from your search use your database's help menu to check which Boolean operators to use.

Not sure how to build a search query? Check our e-learning module.

Adapt your search query to the chosen database

Every database has its own rules.

Let’s take the example of wildcards. You may have learned that the * symbol is a joker replacing 0-n number of characters and that the ? symbol replaces exactly 1 character. This is true. In Scopus.

If you search in CAB Abstracts, the * symbol means the same as in Scopus. However, the ? symbol is a joker replacing 0-1 character. To replace exactly 1 character in CAB Abstracts, you need to use the # symbol. 

Always check your database's help menu for the meaning of the wildcards.

    What should you check in the help menu of your database?

    • The precedence rules for Boolean operators. Some databases process 'AND' before 'OR', while other databases work the other way around. You can use parentheses to enforce a specific order.
    • How wildcards, truncation or hyphens are used
    • If the database automatically searches for singular and plural forms
    • If the database automatically searches for alternative spellings or not (behavior/behaviour)
    • How the proximity operators work