Materials Science and Engineering

Tips for Searching by Text

Literature databases have many tools that allow you to specify your search and filter your results.

Phrase Searching

Keep phrase keywords together as one search term using quotation marks. This tells the database that your search phrase is just one keyword, rather than each word being a separate term.

four, point, probe 🆚 "four point probe"

machine, learning 🆚 "machine learning"


Search for variations of the same root word using truncation to remove its ending. Truncation is an easy way to account for pluralization and verb conjugations. Not all databases are the same, but you can usually use an asterisk for truncation.

hydrophobic*  ↔️ hydrophobic, hydrophobicity 🙌

Be careful not to truncate too much!

hydro* ↔️ hydrogen, hydroelectric, hydroplane, hydrosphere, hydroponics ... 🤦

Boolean Operators

Tell the database exactly how keywords should be linked together using Boolean operators. You can combine synonyms for the same concept together using OR, which will find more results. You can look for the overlap between different topics using AND, which will narrow your search to only items which contain both concepts.

Searching "chiral separation" finds 4,700 results. Searching "enantiomeric separation" finds 2,000 results. Searching "chiral separation or enantiomeric separation" finds all 7,500 results containing either term.  Searching "gold nanoparticles" finds 94,000 results. Searching "biosurfactant" finds 7,000 results. Searching "gold nanoparticles and biosurfactant" finds only 33 results containing both concepts.

When combining multiple operators, use parentheses around groups of keywords to keep your logic clear.

"gold nanoparticles" OR "Au nanoparticles" AND synthesis OR fabrication

("gold nanoparticles" OR "Au nanoparticles") AND (synthesis OR fabrication) ✅

Fields, Filters, and Sorting

Use search fields when entering a search to specify where a database should look for the information you've entered. In some databases, you'll need to open an "advanced search" to specify fields.

AUTHOR = Bragg 👉 find articles written by someone named Bragg
TOPIC = Bragg 👉 find articles about Bragg diffraction, Bragg angles, Bragg gratings, etc.

Use filters to narrow down your search results. Every database is different, but some useful filters are Document Type, Year Published, and Publication Language. You can also sort your results according to your priorities.

  • Relevance: Algorithmic prioritization based on your keywords.
  • Newest: Sort by publication date to find the most recent research.
  • Citations: Sort by the number of times a source has been cited by others.

Improving Your Text Searches

Check out the video below to see examples of these search tips in action.


Video Transcript for "Improve Your Text Searches in Literature Databases"
Created by Michelle Nolan. Recorded August 2023.

Hey there. Here are five quick tips for improving your searches in literature databases.

Number one is make a list of all of the synonyms of the keywords for the question you're trying to search. Different authors are going to use different terms that all mean the same thing, and you know that, but a database isn't just smart as you and won't find all of those results unless you tell it.

For example, when I was in graduate school, I spent like two weeks looking for a protocol to purify a particular compound and I got nothing. But when I searched for a separation of that same compound, then I suddenly got results. And on top of purification versus separation, there's a ton of different terms for particular methods you could use to do a separation.

So spend some time making a list of synonyms and keep notes as you do the search because you can add and remove terms based on what you see in your results. Pay special attention to terms that are so obviously the same to you that you don't even think about them, like basic versus alkaline, positive ion versus cation, and any element and its elemental symbol.

Number two is phrase searching. Anytime we want to search for a topic that has multiple words in it, like machine learning, for example, we want to tell the database that this is just one keyword and not two. So all you've got do is put quotation marks around anything that has a space in it. This will indicate to a database that "machine learning" is one keyword and not two separate keywords of "machine" and "learning." It's a really simple fix.

Number three is now that we have our list of keywords, let's talk about how to link them together using Boolean operators. When you go to a database to do your search, there's a number of different pieces of syntax you can use to tell a database how the keywords relate to one another. And there's three really big ones to know.

The first one is to do an OR search. So if I have two terms, A and B, I can search "A OR B". And basically the database is going to search for A, it's going to search for B, and then it's going to give me all the results for both data sets. This is really useful for relating synonyms together. If, for example, I wanted to search "metal organic framework OR MOF," that would catch all of the results for authors that used MOF or metal organic framework.

The second one is to do an AND search. So if I search "A AND B," it's going to search A, then it's going to search B, and then it's going give me the results that are only in both sets of data. So this is where we want to look for the intersection between two different topics. So I could search, for example, "MOF AND iron" if I wanted to search for iron MOFs.

You can actually use these operators in combination with one another. I recommend using parentheses, almost like an order of operations, to make sure you keep groups together. I like to use ORs to group together all of my synonyms and ANDs to look for the intersection between them. So here you can see I'm searching for "metal organic framework OR MOF" intersected with "iron or Fe." This is going to catch results across all of these different terms and really narrow into specifically the iron MOFs that I'm looking for.

The third operator to be aware of is that you can do a NOT search. So if I search "A NOT B," that's going to search for A and B, and then it's going to remove all results with B. So this is really useful if there's a closely related topic that you don't want in your search terms, but be aware that sometimes it can remove things that you really do want to see. So use it sparingly. For example, I could search ("metal organic framework" OR MOF) AND (iron OR Fe) NOT biomimetic.

Number four is that you can use truncation and wildcards to make your life a whole lot easier when it comes to words with slight variations to them. If for example, I wanted to search for hydrophobia, hydrophobic, and hydrophobicity, you'll see that all of these words have the same root to them. What I can do is I can actually just cut off the ending variation of that word and do a search for hydrophobi* with an asterisk at the end.

Almost all databases use an asterisk for truncation, but double check the one that you're using specifically to make sure that's the right symbol. This truncation will search for all of these different terms. You just want to be careful not to over truncate your word. You wouldn't want to search for hydro*, for example, because then you're going to get a ton of results with different variations after the word hydro.

Using truncation is also really useful when it comes to changes at the end of a word related to plurals and verb conjugations. Just cut them off.

There's something similar called wildcards that you can use for slight spelling variations. This is especially useful when it comes to American versus British English. So if for example, you wanted to get results for all of these different terms that just have slightly different spelling variations based on region, you can just replace the single character that's different usually with a dollar sign. So if I just pop it in there, get rid of those U's and those S's versus Z's, and everybody's favorite in chemistry is "aluminum" versus "aluminium" - this will take care of that for you.

And finally, number five is to take advantage of field searches. Unlike in Google and Google Scholar, you can actually specify where you want to find specific information in the databases that your library subscribes to. I'm using Web of Science for this example because it's really obvious from the front search page how to change the search fields. But if you're using a different database, look for a button that says "advanced search" and that'll bring up field options.

Right here, it's set to “all fields” by default, which is going to search everything. But I actually want to specify that I'm searching for mass spectrometry imaging as a topic. I can also add more rows to search for more data in different fields. So for example, I could add a row and specify that I want to search as an affiliation, "University of Florida" to see if anyone from UF has published about this specifically. I could also add something like a range of dates. For Year Published, I might only want to look at the past 10 years, for example. I could put in 2013 to 2023. Specifying which field you're looking for allows you to be really precise with where you're searching for specific data. And after I have that in, I can hit search.

All right, hopefully some of those tips will help you out when you're looking for journal articles in the future. My name is Michelle Nolan. I'm the Chemical Sciences Librarian at Marston Science Library, University of Florida.

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