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Your search strategy

For a successful search, it’s important to know not only what you are looking for but also the best way to look for it.

The following basic researching tips will work in most search engines and with most search tools. Application in practice may vary, for details please consult the help pages of the individual search tools.

What is a keyword / subject heading search?

Searching for a free term or controlled vocabulary in the metadata of the documents.


In a narrower sense, keywords are words used in the title of a document.

Many search engines use a broader definition of keyword, however, taking them to mean words that appear anywhere in the bibliographic description of the document, including the copyright information (place of publication, publisher, etc.) or in the abstract (brief summary of the contents), if applicable.

This broad search method, usually known as a free-text search, can be problematic, as it often results in a large number of irrelevant hits. For example, if you search for the terms washington and real estate market connected with the AND operator, you will be offered a publication on Lending Booms, Real Estate Bubbles and the Asian Crisis, because Washington is included in the document as the place of publication.

Subject headings

Subject headings describe the contents of a document.
Librarians review each document and identify terms that describe its contents most accurately. They use controlled vocabulary to do so, i.e. they can’t just choose random terms but have to select terms included on a standardized list.

In a subject heading search, it is important to find just the right search terms. Before starting your search, make sure the terms you want to enter are actually used as subject headings. You can check this by looking through alphabetical lists or indexes. For example, looking up the word Reading in such an index results in entries like Reading ability, Reading disability, Reading interests, ...

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How can I connect search terms using Boolean operators?

Boolean operators, named after George Boole, the mathematician who defined them are used to link search terms within a search string.

AND operator

The AND operator is used to specify that all search terms occur within the document, and as such, it links the different search terms (concepts) together. Many search tools have the AND operator as a default setting. The AND operator represents intersecting sets of terms and automatically reduces the number of results.
Variations of AND operators: AND, + or &.

Example: unemployment AND inflation

OR operator

The OR operator is used to search for documents containing one or both search terms. Use OR to combine related or alternative search terms. The OR operator represents a union of sets and as such, increases the number of relevant results.

Example: unemployment OR redundancy

NOT operator

Use the NOT operator to exclude a specific term from your results. This automatically reduces the number of results, but increases the relevance of the hits.
Alternative uses of the NOT operator include AND NOT, NOT,  - (the minus symbol).

Example: unemployment NOT youth

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How can I search for different spellings or endings of a word (truncation)?

Truncation is used to search for different spellings or endings of a search term simultaneously.

Truncation uses symbols (or wildcards) to replace letters in words. Different databases and catalogs use different symbols, but one of the most common symbols is the * (asterisk) sign. You can use truncation at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a word.

Truncation is most frequently used at the end of a word to find words with the same word root. This can be helpful when looking for both the singular and plural forms of a term, for example.

Example: partner* will return documents with the word partner, but also partners, partnership, etc.

Using truncation at the beginning of a word can help find alternative spellings or forms of words.

Example: *redit finds both the German word Kredit and the English credit.

If you are looking for different spellings or are not sure how to spell a word, you can use a wildcard in the middle of the term, as well. Especially in English there can be major differences in spelling between British and American English, for example. Truncation or wildcards let you search for both spellings at the same time.

Example: labo*r finds both the American spelling labor and the British spelling labour.

It’s important to think carefully about where to place your wildcard, as this will affect the relevance of your results.

In English, for example, a search for retail* will return hits including

Especially in German, where words can have a variety of endings, it makes sense to truncate like this:

  • makroökonomie
  • makroökonomik
  • makroökonomisch
  • makroökonomische
  • makroökonomischem
  • makroökonomischen
  • makroökonomischer
  • makroökonomisches

Some word roots, however, will return too many irrelevant hits. A search for wirtschaft*, for example, would bring up close to 250,000 results in the WU catalog because of the many compound nouns in German starting with this word. For a further example in English, the search for socio* would come up with results not only on socioeconomics, but would also include terms like:


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How can I search for a specific phrase?

The phrase search finds specific combinations of search terms in a specific order.

Phrase searching is used to decrease the number of hits, while at the same time increasing the relevance of the hits found. It restricts your search to an exact string of words.

Phrase searching is available in most databases, library catalogs, and web search engines. You just need to run a search with the search phrase placed between quotation marks. The phrase search is useful if you are looking for terms consisting of more than one word, like names (e.g. people, companies, or places) or specialist terminology.

"human resource management"

Please note that the phrase search will return only documents containing this exact combination. Names, for example, are often found in a different order.

Example: "Jane Doe" or "Doe, Jane"

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How can I group search terms?

Grouping search terms lets you interconnect different parameters within one query.

Many databases and internet search engines allow you to group combinations of search terms and operators using parentheses (…).

Example: (customer OR consumer) AND behavior

The required format for this type of search can vary between databases. In the example query above, the search would return all titles that include either the word customer or consumer plus the word behavior.

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