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Experimental Psychology: Search Strategies


Refine your topic: an overly-broad search will return an unmanageable number of results, while a topic that is too narrow won't produce enough information. Play around with your search terms until you find a topic that is researchable.

Broad Topic > Narrowed Topic > Focused Topic > Research Question
Women's health Women & cancer Women smokers & breast cancer Is there a connection between cigarette smoking and breast cancer risk?
Computer games Computer game violence Computer game violence & children How does violence in computer games affect children?
Eating disorders Teens & eating disorders Teen peer pressure & bulimia What role, if any, does peer pressure play in the development of bulimia in teens?



Choose keywords: once you have chosen a topic, you need to identify key words that you can use to search databases. Do some research to find out if there is "official" terminology related to your topic. You may have to try a number of synonyms until you find the one that is best for your search. Tip: some databases also use specific terms called descriptors/controlled vocabulary to organize articles. Knowing the descriptors for your topic makes it easier to find relevant articles.


More Tips for Using Effective Keywords

  1. Select relevant terms to refine your results (e.g., artificial intelligence).
    Use subjects (nouns) to identify keyword.
  2. Begin with only 2-3 terms. Avoid long phrases or sentences. (The more terms you enter, the fewer results you’ll get)
  3. If your search doesn’t work, or if you get too few results, try a synonym or a broader term.
    Example: adolescents instead of teens
  4. When using a database, consider the titles and article abstracts, which often include helpful alternative terms.
  5. Do some quick background research. Note terms that are often used to discuss the topic.
  6. Keep track of previous keyword! You may need to use them again.



Combine terms: once you identify the best terms for your topic, put them together with Boolean operators such as AND (for more precision in your search), OR (to enlarge the pool of results), or NOT (to exclude possible elements unrelated to your topic). These techniques work in most databases, as well as in Google.

  1. AND will narrow your searches
  2. OR will broaden your searches
  3. NOT will narrow your searches to exclude a particular term


Some databases will have the AND/OR/NOT operators built in. In those cases, you can change them using the drop down filters or ignore them and write in the operators manually.

You can also craft specific searches by selecting the fields you want the keyword to appear in

  1. TX All - Text (selecting this field will tell the database to only search for a keyword in the full text of the article)
  2. AU author - (selecting this field will tell the database to only search for a keyword in author field in the article record)
  3. Abstract - (selecting this field will tell the database to only search for a keyword in the Abstract of an article, if the article has an abstract. Not all articles have an abstract.
  4. Select a Field (optional) - Many databases have a default search, that let’s the database decide where to search.



Single character: 

"wom?n" in search bar

Use a question mark (?) for a single character wildcard search. For example, if you used the search term "wom?n", you will find records that contain the words "woman," "women," "womyn," "womxn," etc.


Multiple character: 

teen* in search bar

Use an asterisk (*) for a multiple character wildcard search. For example, if you used the search term "teen*," you will find records that contain the words "teen," "teens," "teenager," and so on

Note: A wildcard cannot be used at the beginning of a search term. The system will ignore the wildcard if you do so.

Article Record

The article record can be a very helpful resource when evaluating articles and brainstorming for new keywords and directions. You will find a breakdown similar to this on most databases including OneSearch. The yellow highlight shows the various categories that can be used as search terms fields, such as author name, journal title, and population of interest for the study. The pink highlight shows fields you can use to find new language you can incorporate in your own searches, such as keywords and subject terms.

Database Filters

PsycINFO has many useful search filters. You will need to scroll down to find them.

  1. Tests and Measures
  2. Age Groups
  3. Population Groups
  4. Methodology

Citation Searching

Scopus, the database,  allows you to sort your search results by the number of times an article is cited. 

  1. Sorting by the number of times cited is available when in the results screen, on the far right drop-down menu.

1. Google Scholar gives you the number of times an article is cited. Unfortunately, you cannot list search results by the number of times, an article is cited in Google Scholar. This makes Google Scholar less effective for citation searches.

Notice that the same article by George B.Graen and Mary Uhl-Bien entitled “Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader-member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective” reports a different citation count when you compare the results between Scopus and Google Scholar.