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A word on search strategy

Identify the main or important aspects

It can be helpful to write down your research question and identify the important words that define your topic before searching. For example:

‘I am interested in the recycling of waste water in cities.’

The important terms to include for this topic would be: recycling, waste water, cities.

Compile a list of keywords

The next step is to compile a list of synonyms or alternative terms. This will ensure that you will have a comprehensive search for relevant literature.

Consider variations such as:

  • Synonyms or alternative terms – e.g. climate change, global warming
  • Acronyms / abbreviations – e.g. DFT, density functional theory
  • Alternative Spellings – e.g. aluminium, aluminum
  • Plurals / alternative endings – e.g. environment, environmental

For our research topic here is the start of a list of synonyms and alternative terms.

Recycling Waste Water Cities
Reuse Sewerage Urban
Lifecycle Drain water Metropolis

Search techniques

There are a number of different search techniques that can be utilised to improve your search results. Details are provided below on phrase searching, truncation, wildcards and boolean opertors.

Phrase searching

To specify that two or more words must appear as a phrase, use double quotes. For example, “global warming”


To search for alternative endings of words, use truncation or stem searching. In most databases the truncation operator is an asterisk ( * ). For example, a search for environment* will retrieve: environment, environments, environmental, environmentalism.


Sometimes there are slight differences in the spelling of a word, English and American spelling being an example. To facilitate searching on alternative spellings, some databases allow wildcard searching. The wildcard operator is often a question mark ( ?) or an asterisk (*). For example, colo?r will find color or colour.

Once you have a list of keywords, synonyms and effective search techniques you will then need to combine these into effective search statements.

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