InfoLit: Search, Read, Write, Cite

CILIP: Information Literacy

ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

Organise your research
Search vocabulary
Boolean operators
NOT - the third Boolean operator
Advanced searches
What versus Where
Time management

Online learning - tips and techniques

Decorative image with word Research Organise your research

Graphic diagram displaying the four steps of the research process 

Graphic of a question mark Search vocabulary


You have an assigment or project to do and you need to find some information. Before you think about looking at any research resource it is important to STOP and THINK about your topic:

What vocabulary do you think people writing about this topic will have used?
What words might a database have used to describe or categorize your topic?

For example, most databases and most academic literature would not use UK to reference the United Kingdom. They would spell it out in full, and therefore so should you.

What spelling might be used with reference to your topic?
Will you need to search for 'theatre' or 'theater'? 'Organization' or 'organisation'? 'Colour' or 'color'?

Is there anything in your research topic where we use two or more words to describe something (a name, a place, a concept)?
What about pina baush, eugenio barba, Charlie chaplin? 
What about  united kingdom, united states, middle east, stratford east?
What about theatre workshop, theatre of the oppressed, ensemble theatre, film theory, youth culture, performance sound, lighting desk?

Are there cases where two or more words might be used interchangeably to describe the topic?
Marketing / advertising, for example, or theatre / drama.

So before you even approach a research database, think about your topic and make a note of the points above. We can put this to good use later.

Let's move on to look at Boolean operators - they are not as scary as they sound!

Graphic showing the three Boolean operators Boolean operators


Boolean operators screen from EBSCOhost

Above is the search screen from one of the online databases the Library subscribes to on your behalf. If you look closely, you will see that the option for “Boolean phrase” searching is set by default.

But what does this mean?

Well a Boolean search is a type of search allowing you to combine keywords with “operators” such as AND, OR and NOT in order to produce more relevant results:

Boolean operators

AND     to search for more than one word e.g. women AND equality
OR       to search for alternative words e.g. marketing OR advertising
NOT     to exclude words e.g. Atlantis NOT disney

If you were to open up EBSCOhost’s International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance (IBTD) and click on the drop down menus next to the second and third search lines in the screenshot above, you would find these three common operators given there for you to select from.

While I have typed in OR and AND in capital letters this is purely for demonstration purposes. The majority of databases will not care whether these operators are in lower or upper case. The one exception to this is Google/Google Scholar, where you are required to use an upper case OR.

Now let's turn to look at the use of Parentheses.

Graphic showing a set of brackets Parentheses

Let us assume that you want to look for articles about advertising to women. But you have also thought that marketing might be a worthwhile alternative to advertising in this search. You want to find articles that deal with women and advertising or women and marketing, and you know you can use your Boolean operators AND and OR. But look at this as an attempt at this search:

 women AND marketing OR advertising

This is not going to work for you as the database will read this as: find me all articles dealing with women and marketing, or find me all articles dealing with advertising. And it won’t matter if you changed the search order to marketing OR advertising AND women. You would then get all articles on marketing, and another set of articles on advertising and women. The problem is that the database does not understand you want either of your alternative words coupled with women. The way to make the database understand is to use parantheses/brackets:

 women AND (marketing OR advertising)

This will now find you articles on ‘women and marketing’ and articles on ‘women and advertising’.

PS: You only need to use the parantheses when you are constructing a more complex search using the OR and AND operators.

In the EBSCOhost database shown below you do not have to physically put in the brackets yourself. By typing the words marketing or advertising into one of the boxes, the database will understand that these terms are to be bracketed. When you get the list of results, have a look at the top of the left-hand column and you will see how the database has interpreted your search, and you should note that it has put in brackets for you.

Screenshot from EBSCOhost showing use of parentheses

Graphic showing a set of quotation marks Phrases - two or more words

In many instances we use more than one word to describe the entity we are researching, whether that be

a place (united kingdom, Saudi arabia, united states), 
a person (eugenio barba, pina bausch, charlie chaplin)
or a concept (youth culture, theatre of the oppressed, ensemble theatre).

In order for the database to understand that you want to find these words strictly together you can put them within quotation marks.

 A search in our JSTOR subscription for drama therapy gave 2032 results. By contrast a search for this as the phrase “drama therapy” gave 81. In each of those 81 cases the words drama and therapy appeared right next to each other, in the order specified, to find just that phrase.

Now let's turn to consider Spelling.

Graphic with the word Spelling Spelling

Before you start you search it is worthwhile thinking a little bit about the topic you are researching, and perhaps a little bit about the sources you are using. This is particularly pertinent when researching the theatre. Because if you knew that EBSCOhost was a US-based company and that a lot of its content came from US journals, magazines and books, then that might get you thinking about the differences in spelling between the UK and the USA: theatre versus theater, colour versus color etc.

In some cases, maybe even the majority of cases, the database may be programmed to pick up these common spelling differences, and return results anyway. But you should bear it in mind when using any database.

Similarly, you should consider any names you are searching for, particularly any non-English names.

For example, a search in the same EBSCOhost database turned up the following results:

            Stanislavskii     =          106
            Stanislavsky     =          109
            Stanislavski      =          309

Now let's consider what is known as Truncation.

Pair of scissors cutting the word truncation Truncation

One way to overcome the ‘stanislavski problem’ mentioned in the section on spelling is to use what is referred to as “truncation”. That is, the use of a symbol (most commonly the * sign) at the end of a word that has been cut sufficiently short to capture all the alternative endings, without being so short as to capture a lot of irrelevant words:

             Stanislavsk*     =          584

As well as finding the three alternative spellings (Stanislavsky, Stanislavski, Stanislavskii), it will also find stanislavskian, stanislavski’s etc. Basically anything that starts with the letters you have typed before the * sign.

Where else might this be useful?

Well think of the word computer. Typing in comput* will find computer, computers, computing, computerisation etc.

But please ensure you have entered enough letters before the * sign to make the word appropriate to your topic. Just typing in comp* will find all the computing words we have just mentioned, but also company, companions, comparable etc.

Also, make sure you are asking to search for something physically possible. Advertising* does not really make sense as there are not too many alternatives that start a,d,v,e,r,t,i,s,i,n,g.

Now let's look at the Wildcard.

An exclamation mark and a question mark - wildcard symbols Wildcard

Although this is not very common, some databases do allow you to use a symbol (often the ? or the !) to substitute for a missing letter (or letters) when you are not sure what that letter might be. For example, organi?ation will find both organisation (spelt with an s) and organization (spelt with a z).

Do be aware that some databases refer to what we have called truncation as being a wildcard search. Google, for example, uses the asterisk, but refers to this as a wildcard symbol.

Let's now look at the third Boolean operator, NOT

Graphic with crossed out equals sign NOT - the third Boolean operator

The third operator we noted at the beginning was the word ‘not’, used to exclude words from your search. So a search in our JISC Journal Archives subscription yields:

Bertolt brecht = 732 results
Bertolt brecht NOT review = 377 results

Other databases may use the minus sign instead, as Google does:

Atlantis = 108,000,000 results
Atlantis –disney = 105,000,000 results

But you need to be careful with this so as not to unintentionally exclude articles that may still be relevant. My elimination of the word review from my search above may have prevented me from retrieving some valid articles, as well as all of the Reviews as I had intended.

Finally consider using Advanced search.

Screen shot of the advanced search in Google Advanced searches

Many databases offer you the choice of an Advanced Search option. It is worth looking at this as the options can help you narrow your results in useful ways. For example, you may only want articles from journals, and not from magazines and newspapers, or this may be a better way of eliminating reviews from your search, instead of using NOT.

Even Google offers an Advanced Search: Google Advanced Search                                                                                                                               
Google’s Advanced search:

Screenshot of Google's Advanced search

Finally let's turn our attention to considering not what to search for, but where to search.

Screen shot of database showing options of where to search What to search versus Where to search

So far we have been considering only WHAT words to search for and how to construct a useful, meaningful search using different signs and symbols. But you should also consider WHERE to search.

When you enter your search terms the database will trawl through everything in an item record to see if it can find your terms. But, unless you are specifically looking for this, how useful is it to find your terms only mentioned in a footnote of an article?

Generally you are trying to find a substantive article on your topic. So consider how relevant and useful the results will be if you search just the title of an article as opposed to the full-text of any record. Surely if your terms appear in the title of an article then you can guarantee that the article is highly relevant.

But sometimes titles can be misleading, or make a play on words, or you may have constructed quite a sophisticated search so that all of your terms do not appear in the title. One useful part of an article to search, and this is particularly the case in academic databases or academic journals, is what is known as the ABSTRACT.

The abstract is a short summary of what the main article is about. So if your search terms appear here it is highly likely the article is relevant, and this search may pick up other articles where the words are not in the title.

Look at the drop down options in JSTOR (where it says 'full-text') and in Proquest (where it says 'anywhere') and see the choices these databases give in terms of deciding where to look for your search terms.

JSTOR Advanced search:

JSTOR's search screen

PROQUEST Advanced search:

Proquest Advanced search screen

Having found the articles you want to read, let's look at some techniques for Reading them.

SQ3R reading tips

Time Management

Bibliography and further learning:

Bibliography: researching, reading, writing - and studying in general [Page]

Open Learn: Information Literacy [URL]

Open Learn - using the PROMPT test to evaluate websites [URL]

A history of 'fake news' - from Newcastle University [URL]

Open University: Being Digital [URL]

Finally, having researched, read and written your paper, you need to cite all those sources you have used:


Harvard Referencing

Cite this for me

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