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This seminar is going to focus on search skills for your dissertation.  

What this session will cover

  • The search strategy cycle
  • Advance searching with connectors  and commands
  • Where to search
  • Database filters
  • When to stop searching

The search strategy cycle

  1. Identify your topic’s key words/terms

The first thing we need to do is to identify keywords or terms, you'll be able to identify your key terms from your research question. If you have a clear question to start with, then task of searching will be much easier.

  1. Make a list of alternative terms

Remember that the databases will not look for alternative keywords or spellings.

  1. Combine Keywords using connectors and wildcards

You can combine your search terms together using search connectors to produced the more relevant results.

  1. Search appropriate catalogues and databases

In order to find relevant materials, you'll need to look in the right place. Think about what you need to find before you start your search.

  1. Refine search results using database search filters

You can limit by item type. This would include articles or books or limit by a specific date range. This is something that's always good to discuss with your supervisor.

  1. Save your search and material found

The next step is saving your search results. This means you can easily find your search results again.

Advance searching with connectors and commands

  • Alternative Keywords

Once you've identified the keywords, we need to think about alternative terms. If your research is about climate change, you also might want to search for the phrase climate crisis to find recent research or other related terms like global warming. A good tip is to check the abstract and keywords of a relevant article. This is a good way to get a sense of how other authors are talking about your subject.

The next stage to think about is how to combine your keywords.

You can combine your searches term using search connectors, which will allow you to broaden or narrow your search results.

  • Search connectors

First, we are going to discuss the search connector AND; search commands will need to be in capital letters to work on most databases. If you search for cats AND dogs, you’ll find articles or books that contain both keywords. This can be a good way to reduce the amount of results, but can also miss relevant research or find zero results if you’re too specific. N.B. If you leave a space between two words, the search engine will assume that you mean AND.

The next search command is OR. If you search for cats OR dogs, you'll find articles that contain either one of those words; it will also find them together as well. Or will help you to broaden out your search and ensure you’re not missing research.

You can use NOT to exclude words. For example, If you are researching the speed of Jaguars, you would potentially find results on the animal and the vehicle. You could use NOT to exclude the word vehicle if you just wanted to find results on the animal. Looking  in subject specific databases will also help you to limit the kind of results that you're getting. 

  • Phrase searching

Next we want to search for groups of words. For example, if we're searching for the phrase climate change and we put it in double quotation marks, you will find the word climate and change next to each other in that exact order. This is a good way to make your search results more relevant. If I search for climate change without putting it in double quotation marks, the database won't necessarily find them together.

  • Truncation

The last search command we're going to look at is a way to search for variations. For example, if we want to find variations on the word anthropology. All we need to do is put an asterisk (*) after the g. That would find anthropology, anthropologist, anthropological.​

  • In practice

Let's have a look at what the search might look like when we bring it all together. We recommend using advanced search to create your search search. It's really helpful to break down your individual concepts into separate lines. For example, we've got climate change and all related terms on one line and you'll notice that those are joined together by OR. You'll also notice that the phrases climate change, climate crisis and global warming are in double quotation marks. To join together the overall concepts, we want to use the AND.

(“Climate change” OR “climate crisis” OR “global warming”) AND (challenge OR question OR impact OR defy) AND (practices OR conventions OR polic*)

You can use this general approach with all databases. If you try the above search, you’ll get over hundred thousand results. The default is to search for those keywords in any field that is the title, the abstract, the body, the keywords. One way to focus the search results is to search just in the title. For example, we could look for the key words about climate change in the title only. Which will reduce our results down to tens of thousands (you’ll need to use advanced search for this to work). We'll look at the other filters in a minute.

Where to search

Library search is a great discovery tool, but it's not a robust search tool. What we mean by this is it doesn't give you a true sense of what been published on a subject area. It's a good resource, but you're going to need to use other databases. If you go to the A to Z of online resources, you'll find a list of specialist databases and other online resources. These resources will enable you to conduct a thorough search.

This is where you'll also be able to access newspaper archives, primary source databases, statistics, etc. The A to Z is broken down into two parts, the first part along the top is just an A to Z. For example, if you were looking for JSTOR you would go to J and you can access it there. However, we've also grouped relevant databases by subject and you'll be able to find relevant databases in your subject guide.

If the library doesn't have access to something, we offer a free service to allow students to request copies of items that are not available at Sussex Library.

Database filters

Next, we'll look at database search filters. We’re using Scopus in this example. The first you need to check on all databases is how your search results have been organized. Some databases will automatically organize results by relevance, prioritizing keywords. Some databases will automatically sort your results by date or citation. In this example we've not got the most relevant results at the top, so we need to reorganize our results by relevance. To further limit your search, you'll need to use the filters. For example, you can use subject area to focus in on geography. You can see in Web of Science that you've got a very similar set of filters so we can see we can organize by date. And you can also reorganize by highly cited, hot papers and the usual filters.

I'll now demo the filters on library search. So first of all, you can see that our search is organized by relevance. You'll find these filters on databases like Scopus and Web of Science; they have a very similar layout. The first thing we think about doing is limiting our results by date. Next, we could focus in on peer reviewed journals only and maybe we just want to look at articles. If you're still finding, you're getting too many results, then you'll need to go back to your keywords.

On Scopus and Web of Science, allow you to analyse your results, which will display them in a graph.

When to stop searching

A good way to get a sense of when you've done enough is asking:

  • Have you identified key papers in a field?
  • Has your supervisor given you an idea of what to expect to find? For example, on climate change, you're going to find a lot of materials.
  • Has there been repetition in the results across different databases? If you're finding the same items, then you can get a sense of whether or not you're finding all of the research.
  • Have you exhausted all reasonable channels of discovery? Have you been through the A to Z, your subject guide looked on different databases for resources?

Skills Hub

On the library home page, there's a link to Skills Hub, and this is where you'll find support on areas such as writing, researching, referencing, and you can also book a one to one with the library on the workshops and tutorials page.

Library contact details

If you have any questions, then you can get in touch this via email phone or the library chat service.

Thank you for watching this lunchtime bites session. Your feedback is really appreciated. If you have two minutes to spare, please complete the online feedback form.


  1. Using your research question identify the keywords required for your search. You are going to use each keyword as a concept.

  1. For each concept identify alternative keywords and group together related terms and synonyms. Tip: use any articles or book chapters relevant to your research to identify alternative keywords required for your search.



Concept 1: climate change

Alterative terms: climate crisis; global warming


  1. Combine your keywords together using search connectors and commands. Use library advanced search.



“climate change” OR “global warming” OR “climate crisis”

You can also review search connectors on Skills Hub: Boolean Connectors and on Video guides: Boolean searching


  1. Refine your search results by using the filter options available on the left hand side of the page or searching within a specific field. For example, the title.


Remember to Sign-in to Library Search to ‘Save search’ (a good way to keep track of evolving search terms), and save items that look relevant for future use.


  1. Going beyond Library Search, now find your Subject Guide and try out your search on Scopus and Web of Science.

Ask us Anything - Live Q&A with the Library
Thursday 16 July @ 11 am
hands holding cup of tea



Full details coming soon!