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LibrarySkills@UCL: Searching for information

A guide to search techniques and developing a search strategy for assignments, literature reviews and research.

Search techniques

Sometimes, using a few simple search techniques can dramatically improve your search results

When you're ready to bring it all together and construct your search, see compiling a search strategy.

Phrase searching

When searching for a phrase, it's a good idea to put the phrase in quotation marks:

"social media"

fake news about coronavirus is circulating via social media

This will ensure that the words are searched next to each other, as a phrase.

Without the quotation marks, often databases will carry out the search as if you had combined them with AND, for example social AND media. This means the words might not be found next to each other:

social media

media reports suggest that people are adhering to social distancing 

IMPORTANT: Some databases will search for two words next to each other as a phrase by default. Notably, this is how searches on the Ovid platform are carried out. At UCL this includes databases such as Medline, Embase, and PsycINFO. Always check the help pages for the database you are using to ensure you understand how your search is carried out.

Quotation marks not working? 

Make sure that you type the quotation marks into the search box, don't copy and paste from Word or the Web.


Truncation is a technique which can broaden your search, where your search term has a common root but multiple possible endings. correctly using truncation can help you to search more efficiently as it saves time.

Type the root of the word, followed by the truncation symbol. Most databases use the asterisk as the truncation symbol.

This will search for the different possible endings of the word.

Psycholog* will find:


Be careful not to truncate too early though as you may retrieve irrelevant results:

Psych* will also find:



Combining search terms - Boolean operators

Use Boolean operators to combine your search terms together.

Use OR to combine different synonyms for the same subject, so that results which contain any of those synonyms are retrieved:

teenager OR adolescent OR "young person"

Use AND to combine different subjects, to ensure you only retrieve results where both subjects are covered:

teenager AND "social media"

Use NOT with caution. For example if you searched for teenager NOT adult, teenager NOT adult, you would not retrieve any results which talk about adults, but you would also not retrieve papers that discuss both teenagers and adults..

Often you might want to use a combination of search operators to construct a search. In this case, you would need to keep your concepts grouped together to ensure the search is carried out correctly:

(teenager OR adolescent OR "young person") AND ("social media" OR facebook OR twitter)

Two different search terms in overlapping circles with overlapping area shaded, to illustrate boolean operator AND. Only results containing both terms will be retrievedTwo overlapping cicles containing search terms, both completely shaded, to illustrate Boolean operator OR. Results containing either term will be retrieved.Two overlapping circles, each containing search terms, with one circle shaded except for the rea where the other circle overlaps. To illustrate Boolean operator NOT