Skip to Main Content

Databases 101: Basic and Advanced Searching Guide: Starting Your Search

Determining Key Terms

Now that you have selected a topic and a database that will be useful to your search, the next step is to determine KEY TERMS that will be used to conduct your search within a database. Unlike Google and other search engines that can be searched using full statements, databases use key terms to search their vast resources. Key terms are search words that describe your topic. Consider the following example:

If your topic was: "How does alcohol consumption affect rates of depression in teenagers," the key terms may be:

  • • Alcohol consumption
  • • Depression
  • • Teenagers

Searching using these key terms will hopefully return helpful results. However, it is important to consider alternate key terms for your search that may fit your subject better and yield additional or more specific results:

  • • Wine, beer, spirits, liquor, etc.
  • • Mood, despair, etc.
  • • Adolescents, high school students, college students, etc.

Once you have your key terms, you are ready to use the database.

While searching using these key terms will hopefully return helpful results, it is important to consider alternate key terms for your search that may fit your subject better. For example, if your search is about heart attacks portrayed in television, using "heart attack" will likely be the best term to use. However, if your search is about heart attacks in diabetic patients, "myocardial infarction" may be better suited. 

For this search about alcohol consumption and depression in teenagers, the following key terms may yield additional or more specific results:

  • • Wine, beer, spirits, liquor, etc.
  • • Mood, despair, etc.
  • • Adolescents, high school students, college students, etc.

A helpful tool to help you find these terms is Credo Reference, which has a subject term map when you search a topic. See below:

image of credo subject terms map

This tool can be helpful when you are first starting to explore the most common subject terms relating to a larger topic. It can be a great way to find other subjects to research and help you narrow your topic. 

Gale databases, linked here, have a helpful feature on their front page, Topic Finder. This tool takes a topic that you search and creates a visualization of subject terms that are commonly used in articles about that topic. You can find this button when you scroll down their home page: 

gale topic finder button
You can search almost any topic here and Gale will populate either a "Tile" style visualization of subject terms relating to your topic, which looks like the image below:
gale tile topic finder
Or you can do the "Wheel" style, which looks like the image below: 
Gale wheel topic finder
In both options, you can click a topic and Gale will search throughout their databases for articles relating to that area of the topic. The topics are organized by most common as the largest pieces to the less common ones being smaller.
This can be helpful when you are trying to narrow down your topic. Gale is an academic database that contains research and articles that can help you with a wide array of topics of research. For example, Gale Literature is a great resource for articles about literature, analyzing literature, and criticism of literature. To see all of the subject specific databases from Gale that we have to offer, they are linked here.

Utilizing tools like the Thesaurus or Mind Mup can assist you in discovering these key words. By mapping out ideas, or using the Thesaurus to come up with synonyms, usually both together, we can discover new key words that can help us to discover better resources in databases. 

See below as an example of a Mind Map to help brainstorm key words: 

mind map on mind mup for the topic of teenage drinking


While this is not a necessary step, this can be very helpful to organize ideas, find new key words, and also organize sources as you find them. You can copy and paste citations or titles of articles relating to topics here and later on utilize this as an outline for your research project.

Using AND to Narrow Your Search

While using one key term can yield helpful results, utilizing more than one key term by using Boolean operators in between can narrow your search from general results to more relevant results. The recommended place to start is using the word AND within your search.

To search using AND, simply type AND between your KEY TERMS.

For example: 

Alcohol consumption AND depression
Alcohol consumption AND depression AND teenagers

While just using alcohol consumption may yield thousands of results on any subject, using AND and another key term such as depression or teenagers will narrow your search to also including those terms in your results.


To help you visualize the power of AND, please see the example below:


venn diagram showing search terms used and results with AND


Not using AND:

  • A search for the Alcohol Use returned 94,676 results.
  • A search for Teenagers returned 980,880 results.
  • A search for Depression returned 845,477 results.

Using AND with two key terms:

  • A search for Alcohol Use AND Teenagers returned around 15,000 results.
  • A search for Teenagers AND Depression returned around 62,000 results.
  • A search for Alcohol Use AND Depression returned around 8,000 results.

Using AND with three key terms:

  • A search for Alcohol Use AND Teenagers AND Depression returns around 1,000 results, which is a much more manageable number of results to review and they will be more relevant to your topic. You may even want to add another term or a limiter to narrow in even further. Perhaps in a time frame, like from 2015-2020, or an age range like 16-18 or 18-20. These are ways to make results more manageable. 

Using OR to Broaden Your Search

Using OR between KEY TERMS can broaden your search from a small number of results to a larger number of results. A search using OR between key terms will return results that include any of the KEY TERMS

To search using OR simply type OR between your KEY TERMS.

See the example below:

A search for TEENAGERS AND ALCOHOL USE returned 3,716 results


A search for ADOLESCENTS AND ALCOHOL USE returned 5,478 results


A search for (TEENAGERS OR ADOLESCENT) AND ALCOHOL USE returned 5,988 results. This search will include all results which deal either with teenagers or adolescents and alcohol use. 

Helpful Videos

Video: Keywords - Library Research Tutorial by University of Maryland Global Campus Library via YouTube
Video: Selecting & Using Keywords by Krueger Library - Winona State University via YouTube
Video: Searching with Boolean Operators by Western University via YouTube