Advanced Database Searching

This guide will help you identify keywords and concepts in an assignment topic, explain how to develop a search strategy for databases searching, and provide searching tips.

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Refining searches


A widely used technique for broadening search results, is the use of "truncation" and "wildcard" symbols.

Use these symbols to create searches where there are unknown characters, multiple spellings or various endings. Neither the wildcard nor the truncation symbol can be used as the first character in a search term.

Truncation is represented by a symbol, usually an asterisk (*). To use truncation, enter the root of a search term and replace the ending with an (*). You can use the (*) symbol to find all forms of that word.

For example, use austral* to find the words australia or australian or australia's or australasia

Note: The truncation symbol (*) may also be used between words to match any word.

For example, a midsummer * dream will return results that contain the exact phrase, a midsummer night’s dream

Truncation can be useful for author searches when you are not sure how the author's first name has been entered. For example:

Smith A* will return results for Smith A plus Smith Adam, Smith Alice, etc.


Wildcard symbols

The wildcard is represented in Ebscohost databases in two ways:

1/ by a pound sign #     

To use the # wildcard, enter your search terms, adding the # in places where an alternate spelling may contain an extra character. EBSCOhost finds all citations of the word that appear with or without the extra character.

e.g. colo#r to find all citations containing color or colour.


2/ by the ? sign   

To use the ? wildcard, enter your search terms and replace each unknown character with a ?. EBSCOhost finds all citations of that word with the ? replaced by a letter.

e.g. ne?t to find all citations containing neat, nest or next. EBSCOhost does not find net because the wildcard replaces a single character.

Limiting by date

Often you will be required to restrict your research results to material published in the last five years. Of course this is not the case if you are asked for historical information (so read the essay or assignment question carefully).

It is easy to limit your search results to a date range. For example, if you are searching on the EBSCOhost platform, you can specify the 'to" and "from" dates using the drop down options under Published Date. You will find this under Search Options, then Limit your results or you can get to it from theAdvanced Search screen.

Published Date

Search limiters

Other limiting options

Apart from date, there are many other ways you can limit the results of your search. Some of the other most commonly used limits are:

  • Peer (scholarly) reviewed; Evidence Based Practice; Research articles only
  • Geographic area (i.e. Australia)
  • Language, gender or age group
  • Publication (i.e. specific journal/s) or publication type (i.e. journal article, legal case, historical material, systematic review...)
  • Full text or abstract available

Note: The options will depend on the database you are searching

You can usually also restrict search (focus) words or phrases to the title of the article, abstract or Subject Heading field/s. This often results in far more relevant results. This is how to do Field Searching in the EBSCOhost databases:

In the Advanced Search screen, enter your keyword in a search box. Select a Field from the drop down options next to that search box.

Here are some of the options:

 e.g.    music therapy   

Only items with the term "music therapy" in a Subject Heading field (major or minor), will be retrieved. To make the search even tighter, repeat this process for other keywords in the topic.

e.g.    music therapy  AND


Only articles with all the words music therapy and students in the Subject Heading field/s will be retrieved.

Whilst you can search on any keyword, many databases have their own list of subject headings that you can browse, usually known as a subject THESAURUS, that contain all the subject headings used for that database (taking the synonyms, variant spellings etc. into account). Check the database you are using to see if they have such a list - it takes the guess work out of keyword searching! In some cases you can "explode" or mark terms to be searched as major concepts. To read how this works in Ebscohost databases, go to:

Proximity searching

In some databases, including EBSCOhost you can use a proximity search to search for two or more words that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other in the databases. Proximity searching is used with a Keyword or Boolean search.

The proximity operators are composed of a letter (N or W) and a number (to specify the number of words). The proximity operator is placed between the words that are to be searched, as follows:

Near Operator (N) - N5 finds the words if they are within five words of one another regardless of the order in which they appear.

For example, type tax N5 reform to find results that would match tax reform as well as reform of income tax.

Within Operator (W) - In the following example, W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another and in the order in which you entered them.

For example, type tax W8 reform to find results that would match tax reform but would not match reform of income tax.

In addition, multiple terms can be used on either side of the operator. See the following examples:

  • (baseball or football or basketball) N5 (teams or players)
  • oil W3 (disaster OR clean-up OR contamination)

Phrase searching

It is recommended that phrases be enclosed in quotations marks when included in searches.

If a phrase contains stop words, the stop words will not be searched, but the searchable words will be searched in the order as entered.

e.g. “quality of life”   “health determinants”


Truncation symbols vary between databases, so if you are unsure about which one to use, check the Help section for the database you are using.

Not all online resources support the wildcard and proximity functions, or may use different symbols. Check the Help section of the online resource you are using.