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A Guide to the Research Process

Search for Sources

What sources should you use to complete your research paper? Where should you find those sources, and how do you find them? This page will teach you about the best sources to use for your assignment, Boolean searching and useful database searching tips.

The search box on the library home page, Spartan Search, looks through all library databases. The A to Z Database link gives you a list of each of those databases and resources, including certain highly credible resources from around the web. The list can be sorted by subject area or material type.

Many of the library's databases are subject-based, and searching one allows you to use advanced search options specific to the discipline. For example, CINAHL (a nursing database) can limit results to articles written by a nurse.

Spartan Search Box:
Subject Specific Databases:
  • hear about a topic from many disciplines
  • browse results when beginning research
  • get as many results as possible
  • hear about a topic from a specific discipline
  • unique filters and tools useful for the field
Did You Know?

EBSCO is one database vendor that you will use often during your time at AU. The library also has access to other database vendors like ProQuest and JSTOR. Use the vendor drop down list on the A-Z Database to view these options.

Before we start searching in the library databases, take a few minutes to consider which search terms or keywords best describe your topic.

Example: Do veterans with PTSD have better outcomes when they are given service animals?

  • Identify the main ideas - Do veterans with PTSD have better outcomes when they are given service animals?
  • Brainstorm Broader, Related and Narrower Terms. Remember that sometimes articles are published by experts in their given field, consider the language that an expert would use.
Service Animals
Soldiers (broader) Post-traumatic stress disorder (related) Service dogs (narrower)
Vietnam veterans (narrower)   Assistance animals (related)

When you start researching in the databases, you may find that your topic is too broad or too narrow. If your topic is too broad, try getting more specific by asking yourself what group, region, time period and/or point of view you are interested in researching. If your topic is too narrow, use broader keywords to capture more results and follow where the research leads you.

Improve your search results with Boolean Operators. The three Boolean Operators: AND, OR, NOT can be found under advanced search or typed directly into a search box. Placing a Boolean Operator between your keywords will allow you to narrow or expand your search.

AND narrows your results. For example, if you are researching the use of music therapy in pain management use AND to find articles that combine your two keywords.

Pain Management AND Music Therapy

Boolean AND Example

OR broadens your results. Suppose you are still choosing a topic. You are interested in pain management as well as music therapy. You would like to see articles on either, even if they do not overlap.

Pain Management OR Music Therapy

Boolean OR Example

NOT eliminates a specific term from your results. If you are interested in alternative treatments for pain management, but are not interested in articles on music therapy, you can use NOT to eliminate those results.

Pain Management NOT Music Therapy

Boolean NOT Example

Learn More

Video from Carnegie Vincent Library
  • Boolean Operators (See Above)
  • Truncation
    • Truncation allows you to search multiple terms with the same root at once.
      • Child* searches for Child, Children, Childhood
      • Politic* searches for Politics, Political, Politician
  • Limiters
    • Many databases offer limiters. These can be selected either prior to or after you enter your search terms. Depending on the database, limiters can be found on the left hand or right hand side of the screen. Some examples include, Full Text Only, Publication Date limiters and Peer-Reviewed.
  • Field Searching
    • Most databases default to a keyword search. This means that the database is looking for your keyword everywhere, in the title, the abstract, the articles full text, etc. Changing the search from keyword to title can help you improve the relevancy of your results
  • Phrase Searching
    • If your search term is multiple words, it can be useful to add quotation marks around it. This let's the database know to look for those words together and in that order. This can be limiting because we can phrase the same concept so many different ways, so be use this tool carefully.
  • Citation Chasing
    • Find an article you like? Review the reference list to see if any of the articles listed are relevant to your search
Need More Tips?

Check out our tutorials page to view tutorials and videos about find resources in the library's databases.

Troubleshooting a Search

Found too many results?

Add more keywords.

Adding additional keywords to your search can help to further narrow your topic.

Example: college AND first-generation students AND academic performance

Use a filter

Look on the left side for ways you can filter your materials. Here are a few to consider, depending on your needs.

  • material type - such as a book, newspaper article, or review
  • peer-reviewed - to find scholarly articles
  • date - typically to find the most current materials
  • subject - to find articles about a certain topic


Found too few results?

Try different search terms.

What other words could you use to describe this concept? Brainstorm related terms, synonyms, and slightly different forms of your word or phrase. Also brainstorm broader categories or concepts it belongs to, as well as narrower elements or examples. 

It may also be useful to consider the official, academic, or formal way to write that term. This is more likely to be used in academic writing.

Use fewer search terms.

Sometimes less is more! The more words, phrases, or subjects you ask the database to find, the fewer sources will meet the criteria.

Use OR.

Broaden your search by using the boolean operator OR to link your terms.

Example: (college OR higher education OR university) AND first-generation students AND (academic performance OR student success)


Still not working? Learn more about search methods or ask a librarian for personalized help.