Econometrics and Business Statistics: Searching effectively

1. Steps for effective database searching

Plan and execute an effective search using the following six steps. The screen shots are from the ProQuest database, but the process is applicable to database searching in general.

1.         What is the topic?    

                  Example:      Is it reasonable for employers to monitor their employees’ e-mail?

2.         What are the key concepts?

                                 monitor    employee   e-mail  

3.         Are there other ways to express these key concepts, in order to widen the search?

Some general examples:

  • synonyms (including American terminology)        eg. mobile phone, cellular phone
  • plural/singular                  eg. woman, women   
  • spelling variations             eg. behaviour, behavior
  • variations of a root word       eg. strategy, strategic
  • acronyms                         eg. CEO, chief executive officer

                                monitor,   spy

                                employee,   workplace

                                e-mail,   email,  electronic mail

 4.    For each key concept, join its keywords with OR

                                                monitor or spy

                                                employee or workplace

                                                e-mail or email or electronic mail

 5.     Link each key concept set with AND, to obtain records which contain at least one of the

terms from each concept set:

  (monitor or spy)  and  (employee or workplace)  and  (e-mail or email or electronic mail)

While the effect of OR is to widen the search, AND narrows or focuses the search. You may see them referred to as Boolean operators in database online guides.

This is how the search is entered in the ProQuest search engine:

Screenshot of Advanced Search screen

6.      Evaluate the records retrieved, and modify the search accordingly.

From the results list view the records which seem to be the most relevant

Look for terms within the results, especially subject terms, which you can use to refine the initial search. The image below shows subject terms appearing in a ProQuest database record from the search.

Example of subject terms in a ProQuest record

Subject terms collectively describe the main themes of the article. The same subject terms will also appear in the records for other articles in the database which substantially cover those themes.

Searching on subject terms can therefore be an effective way of focusing the search on the most relevant articles. They may also suggest terminology or aspects of the topic that you had not considered. 

Below is an example of a modified search based on subject terms identified in various records from the initial search. The selection of Subject in the drop down menu will limit the search to only that part of the record. In general, the fields selected for a search do not have to be the same; eg  one concept set may be set to subject terms and another in the same search may remain as the default setting (for the ProQuest databases “Citation and abstract”)

Image showing a subject terms search in ProQuest

Further tips for modifying a search

To focus the initial search:

  • reduce the terms linked by OR
  • add another key concept, linked by AND (refer to Step 2)
  • limit by date range

To widen the initial search:

  • increase the terms linked by OR (refer to Step 3)
  • remove a key concept
  • use the truncation symbol (see below)


Typing a truncation symbol after the root of a word will find variations of that word. This can be a powerful way of expanding the search. The truncation symbol is often a star or asterisk (*). For a particular database check the online help to confirm the symbol to use.

For example,   monitor*  will find  monitor,  monitors, monitoring, monitored

                    spy*   will find  spy, spying

                    employ*  will find employ, employs, employee, employer,  etc.

2. Interactive tutorials

Try the following short online tutorials to develop your database search skills:

Searching for journal articles in Business Source Complete (embedded swf, 6.9 MB)

Accessibility document  (doc 6.2 MB)

Searching the Factiva news database (embedded swf, 3.6 MB)

Accessibility document (doc,  3.9 MB)

video icon Quick tips for database searching

3. Accessing databases

To access these and other databases, click the Databases tab.