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Scientific Articles: General Database Search Tips

This guide will help you find journal articles that report scientific findings.

General Database Search Tips

You are probably used to searching Google. But databases are different animals, and if you search them as if they are Google you might not find much.  Here are some quick tips:

  • Spelling counts. The databases won't correct your spelling, so if nothing comes back, maybe you just misspelled something.
  • Keep it simple. Search for only two or three words at a time, not whole sentences.
  • Some words belong together. If you are searching for articles that contain a particular phrase, like “back pain,” be sure to put quotation marks around the words you want to stay together.  Otherwise, you might get articles that don’t mention “back pain.”  Instead they mention the word go back in one part of the article and the word feeling no pain in another part of the article.
  • Try this wild trick. If you are using a word that has more than one different ending, like prescribe or prescription, type just the first part of the word, then put an asterisk ( * ) right next to it, like this:  prescri*   Then you’ll get articles that mention either word.  This technique is called truncation.  Just think how many words start with psych*  !
  • Use only the important words. Only use the words that most describe your topic, not other topics. For example, you wouldn't want to use the words the, an, a, or, for, of, from, to, or even effects or how.  These words could be applied to almost any topic, which is how you know they won't help.
  • Try, try again. If your search doesn't bring back enough results the first time, use other words that mean similar things or change the focus just slightly.
  • Wikipedia can help. If you're not sure what words to use, it can be a good idea to check other websites like Wikipedia or a thesaurus or an online Library encyclopedia to find words to search for in the databases. As you search the databases, you’ll find more words.
  • Envision your perfect article.  What words would be in the title of the article or in its summary?  A good strategy is to write down a sentence or question that describes what you want to know, such as: 

    Does marijuana have legitimate medical uses?

Start with the important words:  medical and marijuana, then brainstorm other synonyms or related concepts. Here are a few examples, but there are many more:

          medical                            marijuana                           [related terms]
          therapeutic                       cannabis                            
          prescription                      THC                                    appetite
tetrahydrocannabinol            chemotherapy
          dispensary                           marinol                                  multiple sclerosis
          remedy                             pot                                      pain

Different authors describe the same thing in different ways depending on who they are writing for and the context of the article.  Each of these words and phrases in different combinations will bring back different search results.  Here are some example searches you can use in databases or even on the Web:


                                       therapeutic marijuana
                            therapeutic cannabi*
dispens* marijuana
marinol thc appetite
                               marijuana dispensar* pain

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