Revising a search

Getting started

When running a search, the objective is to get a manageable number of results that are relevant to your research topic or assignment question.

To achieve this, search strategies need to be applied then reviewed, evaluated, adjusted and re-run.

Check the results from your initial search and consider: 

  • Are there too many?  

  • Are the results relevant? 

  • Do you need more results?

What to do if you have too many results

Reduce the number of results you get from a search using the following tips:

  • Add database limits, such as a date range, age range, language or country.

  • Limit your search to a particular search category, such as title or abstract.

  • Use the following words (known as “Boolean operators”) to combine or exclude keywords in your search:

  • “AND” narrows results.

  • “OR” broadens results.

  • “NOT” excludes terms from a search.

  • If you are looking for a particular study design, like a randomised controlled trial, some databases (like Medline) will allow you to add that term into your search. 

  • Use “proximity operators” to increase the likelihood that terms are used in a similar context. Proximity searches use operators to designate how closely, and in what order, you want the search terms to appear. Most commonly, Proximity operators allow you to locate one word within a certain distance of another. 

(For example, a limit of ‘television n2 violence’ would find ‘television violence’ or ‘violence on television,’ but not ‘television may be the culprit in recent high school violence.’ Here the ‘n2’ limits to results that have the words ‘television’ and ‘violence’ within a two-word proximity in the search result. 

  • Use more specific terms to describe each concept.

What to do if your results are irrelevant

When your search terms are too broad, the chances of returning irrelevant results are greatly increased. 

To find relevant results, you need to narrow your search terms by making them more specific. 

Here’s what to do if your results are irrelevant:

  • Identify words in your search that might have more than one meaning (e.g. “cold” could refer to the common cold or cool temperatures). You might be able to eliminate some of these by using “NOT” between search terms, or limit result by including some more specific terminology related to that term. 

  • Consult a dictionary, textbook, encyclopaedia or expert in the subject for more appropriate or specific search terms.

  • If you find an article that is very relevant to your research area, look at the subject headings or keywords and incorporate them into your search.

  • Search syntax sets the rules that determine search method in retrieving information from databases, search engines or other sources. It allows you to perform searches for documents that have been linked together. Consult database help pages to ensure you are using the right search syntax. Search syntax can be incorporated to further refine your search.

What to do if you have too few results

If a search is too specific, it may not return enough results. In this case, you must broaden your search.

Here’s what to do to increase your number of results:

  • Try different or broader search terms. Swap out some of your specific terms or concepts for more generic ones with varied meanings.

  • Use truncation symbols (e.g. if you search for “depress*” instead of “depression”, you will also find the terms “depressed” and “depressive”). Truncation – like proximity operators – is syntax, so just remember to double check the syntax list for the databases you are searching to ensure that truncation symbols are being used appropriately. 

  • Use wildcards to retrieve alternative spellings (e.g. “p?ediatric” will find both the term “paediatric” and “pediatric”). Check the syntax list for the databases you are searching to find the correct wildcard.

  • Remove any unnecessary limits, such as date range or country.


  • Consider using another database, with different or wider coverage.

Keep adjusting your search by incorporating these suggestions until you have a manageable number of results that are relevant to your research topic or assignment question.


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