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PALNI Information Literacy Modules

Set of 14 modules available for use as LMS or LibGuide versions

Module 3: Advanced Searching


  water waves on shore during daytime

(Joe Dudeck, Unsplash )

Sometimes finding useful articles in a database is very easy. If your article needs are flexible, and you just need one good article on any topic related to Psychology, you hardly have to try, there are so many good choices.

In cases like these, finding articles is like standing at the shoreline and throwing a rock into the ocean. You just can’t miss.

However, sometimes your needs grow and parameters become more narrow. For example, now you need 15 good Psychology articles, all of which were published in the last 3 years, specifically having to do with distraction, and whose study participants are young adults.

Now instead of throwing a rock into the ocean, you have to throw it in a small bucket of water, and instead of standing at the shoreline you have to back up 15 feet. This is certainly possible, but it will take more skill and more practice.

red plastic bucket on water


In the following module you will be introduced to advanced searching strategies and database features. You’ll learn how to choose databases that best fit your needs and how to make the most of the tools in general and in discipline-specific databases.


Learning Outcomes

After completing this module, you will be able to: 

  • Choose a database most appropriate for your needs.
  • Maximize your search strategy by:
    • Using multiple search boxes and field options.
    • Using database limiting and narrowing tools to focus results lists.
    • Using special typing codes to broaden or narrow the search.

Choosing a Database

Many databases look the same because they have the same interface; they are provided by the same database vendor. For example, EBSCOhost databases CINAHL and Business Source Complete look very similar but have very different content inside. CINAHL has articles from Allied Health and Nursing journals, where Business Source Complete has articles from Marketing, Management, and Accounting journals.

This is good news! It means you really only have to get comfortable with one of these, and then your database skills will transfer over to other databases. Think about learning to ride a bicycle: You have to learn to balance, pedal, and use the brakes. It takes a while to get used to it and gain confidence. However, once you learn on your first bicycle, you can jump on most any other bike with immediate confidence and success.

When choosing which database to use, you should consider the Discipline, Coverage, and Full-Text of the database.

  • Discipline means an academic area of study. Think about what majors or schools there are at your college. Databases often have a broad disciplinary focus, for example a single Education database, rather than a separate database for Elementary, Secondary and Higher Education topics.
  • Coverage means the type of records, years of publication of the included journal articles, and number of journals included in a database. Some databases have the most recent articles included; as soon as a journal is published the articles are available in the database. Other databases have embargoed journals; the database includes many articles from a journal, but excludes the most recent six months or a year. (This is a strategy to get researchers to subscribe directly to that journal, rather than get the articles through the database. Like how some movies come out first in theaters, then six months later are available to buy or rent or stream at home). Still other databases are historic, and include journals from many years ago, even ones that are no longer actively publishing.
  • Some databases include the Full-Text of each article indexed. That means if you find an article, you will be able to click to view or download the whole article instantly. Other databases only include article records (or some article records and some full-text); a record will provide details like author, date, source, and abstract, but then you’ll have to order that article through Interlibrary Loan or another source. For example, as of Spring 2021, an EBSCO database called APA PsycArticles had over 200,000 article records, all of which had Full-Text available. In contrast, the EBSCO database APA PsycInfo had 4.9 Million article records(!) but most of those were record-only. Knowing which is which, and what to expect, will make the results to your searches in each database more intuitive.

Additionally, many databases have special features like Controlled Vocabulary and Citation Linking . These features are often specific to certain disciplines or databases.

  • Controlled Vocabulary is a research term for agreed upon standard terms for different topics, subjects, or issues. There is a good reason for this. Sometimes students and researchers new to a topic might not know all the different ways to describe the topic, and by searching with the wrong keywords, they might miss important information. For example, you may search in a medical database for flu shots and find the result list surprisingly small. Why is this? By browsing the database's controlled vocabulary, you will find that the more common term for flu shots in the medical literature is influenza vaccine.
  • Citation Linking connects a database article to other scholarly works that cite it. This allows the database user to find scholarly works that may be similar to the original source.

Advanced Searching

For the rest of this module, we are going to walk through advanced searching using EBSCO databases. The same strategies will apply for other databases as well, although the specifics will vary from vendor to vendor.

One way to maximize your search strategy is to use multiple search boxes for your search. Instead of typing all of your search terms into the first box of the database search page, try finding the advanced search option instead. Then, divide your search out into each box. 

Remember our search example from the introduction? For a class, you need 15 psychology articles, all of which were published in the last 3 years, specifically having to do with distraction, and whose study participants are young adults.

Let’s look at some EBSCO databases you might be able to use at your library. Which of these databases do you think you'd use for this assignment?

EBSCO Database Screen 

Well, you could take a guess from looking at these database names that APA PsycArticles and APA PsycInfo are probably focused on Psychology. You could also mouse over the little information bubble and a pop-up will appear to tell you more about these databases. We learned earlier that APA PsycArticles had lots of full text articles, while APA PsycInfo has information about more articles. This means that ideally, you would start with APA PsycInfo in order to find more articles, but if your deadline is soon, you may want to use APA PsycArticles instead. For our scenario, we're going to say that you have started with lots of time, so you will choose APA PsycInfo.

Now, let's review our search terms. We are looking for studies about distraction focusing on young adults. So we chose APA PsycInfo and then clicked on advanced search. In each box, we entered one of our search terms.

EBSCO Database Screen 

In Spring of 2021, this search has over 1300 results. However, we needed these results to be from the last 3 years. In EBSCO, we can use what are called Limiters to further narrow our search. The limiters are located to the left of your search results along the side of the screen.

EBSCO Database Limiters 

Once we choose 2018-2021 for the date limiter, we are left with around 200 results. You could also use the limiters for the type of result to just include academic journals in your results. Since you need 15 articles for your assignment, 200 results may not be enough to choose from. This means it's time to take full advantage of the advanced search. For each of your search terms, come up with 2-5 synonyms that might be used instead of your original term.

Distraction = interruption, disturbance
Young adults = adolescents, teenagers, college students

Now, we need to use Boolean Operators to add these keywords to our search. Watch this video to see how to use AND, OR, & NOT with your keywords. 

(McMaster Libraries, 2016, CC-BY)

To add my new keywords to my search, I type OR between each synonym in a box and the database automatically adds the AND between each box. If you'd like to use a different operator, you can use the drop-down menu to select a different one.

Once I hit the search button, then I go from 200 to over 1600 articles. All of the sudden I have plenty of articles to choose from again!

EBSCO Database Screen 

At this point, you should choose a way to narrow your topic again by adding a third set of keywords. What aspect of distraction are you particularly interested in? Students? Emotions? Driving? Choose a third term and add it and some synonyms to the search. Then you'll be able to easily choose the best and most appropriate articles for your assignment.

There are a few other ways to enhance your search strategy to mention. For each of your keywords, you can use the box to the right to "Select a Field." A Field is a single piece of information from the record about an article. Popular fields include: Abstract, Author, Document Title, Document Type, Language, Publication Title, Publication Year, and Subject. Each database will have its own set of additional fields that may be useful for your search. So, if you know that one of your keywords does/should appear in one of these fields, use the drop down menu to select that field. 

Another search strategy involves using Quotation Marks "", an Asterisk *, or Options.

  • You can use quotation marks around a phrase in your search terms, such as our phrase "young adults" above. This ensures that the database will look for those two words next to each other and not just those two words anywhere in the record. 
  • An asterisk allows you to search for words with multiple endings without typing in each word. A search for teen* will search for teen, teens, teenager, and teenagers.
  • Finally, many databases will have their own unique Advanced Search options. For example, APA PsycInfo allows you to choose specific populations by age and group, and also allows you to choose specific research methodologies. Save these options until the last step of your search process, as they may sometimes remove relevant results from your research.


The content for this module was drawn from the following sources:

McMaster Libraries. (2016, Nov 28). How library stuff works: Boolean operators (AND OR NOT). [YouTube video].


For this activity, pretend you are a student taking a Nursing class. Your research topic is:

Are non-contact thermometers fit for mainstream usage for detection of fever in pediatric patients?

  1. You are going to do some advanced searching in a Nursing focused database and write about your findings, either in the textbox in the LMS or in a Word document. First, you'll need to choose the database. Here are some options available at your library:
    • Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition
    • CINAHL with Full Text
    • MEDLINE with Full Text
  2. Go to your library website and access one of these databases. Write the database name in your document.
    • Do a search for:
      • infrared thermometers
      • pediatric
      • fever
  3. How many results do you get? Add this number to your document.
  4. Add a few synonyms to your search using boolean logic and multiple text boxes. How many results do you get? Add the keywords and the number of results to your document. Use one or more of the limiters along the left hand side. How many results do you have now? Add the limiter you used and the number of results to your document.
  5. Do these results look like they would be useful for research on this topic?


See the Google doc here for quiz questions and answers. Please note, this document is stored on the PALNI team drive and is only accessible to those who work in a PALNI school.


Creative Commons License

All of the PALNI Information Literacy Modules are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.