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BIOLOGY 410/510: Integrative Invertebrate Zoology

Searching like a pro

In Google you can type in, "What's the weather like in New York City this weekend?" and receive an answer. But in databases, you need to dumb down your inquiry to short, important pieces of information to get relevant sources.

For example, if I am doing research to 'compare the salinity stress in different species of estuarine bivalves', I do not type in that ENTIRE sentence. Really I am looking for the meat of my sandwich:  

Salinity stress / bivalves

Once you have the meat, you can then start to put together a search strategy like in the example below. Consider synonyms and related words as well -- perhaps some authors refer to dogs as canines in their articles or specifically the breed German Shepherd. Make sure you get ALL of the relevant possibilities for your research.


So your search may look like this:


By studying the Subjects used to describe the article, you can identify additional search terms that will help you develop an even more thorough search. For example:

(bivalves OR bivalvia OR mollusca) AND ("salinity stress" OR "osmotic stress")

Building an in-depth search

At some point, you'll want to write on or explore a topic more in-depth and thus you'll need to do a more comprehensive search. This can be a big task. Where do you begin?

  1. Start with a table like the one below to keep your thoughts organized. On the left write your original concepts

  2. Next, see if the database you're using (for example, Biological Abstracts) has a thesaurus or subject heading database built within it. Use it to understand how your term will be interpreted and if the term agrees with your concept. 

  3. The last column is designed for words not included in the thesaurus or other synonyms or related terms by which your concept could be referred to in the literature. Example:

Summing up

Searching for articles is not always easy, but there are tricks that will help you navigate and find more relevant materials to your needs.

  1. Use Boolean operators correctly (AND/OR/NOT)

  2. Take advantage of Filters for search results (usually on the left-hand side)

  3. Study and use available Subject Headings

In addition, try these strategies --

  1. Find one good article and 'backward search' (read references) and 'forward search' (who cited it?)

  2. Find that article in a database and study the subject headings in record

  3. Search different databases - there will be some overlap but some new sources

  4. Follow 20 minute rule-of-thumb and ask for help

Search Strategy Builder

When searching library databases, you need to boil down your inquiry to short, important pieces of information.

To help you think through this process of building a good search, here's a little tool that can help you construct effective searches for Search Everything @ BU, many article databases, BU Books (the catalog), and more. Developed by Ohio State University, it's called Search Strategy Builder.

Just click on the link, fill in the blanks, and click the button to create a search statement. You can then copy and paste that statement into the database of your choice.

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