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Psychology: How to search

Welcome to the Library guide for Psychology. Here you will find a OneStop service to assist you in your studies or research at the NWU.

How to search

Databases can be intimidating at first.  Luckily they all have similar features even though they look different.  When you get to grips with these similarities, switching between databases will be no problem.  What you learn in one database will help you with the other databases.  Understanding the basic searching components will help you improve the correctness and completeness of your searches.  

Below are some hints and tips you can consider when searching for information.

1.  Search terms
Your search terms or keywords are important as they describe the topic you are looking for.  The database will match your keywords against the text of the article and therefore determine how successful your search is.  Keywords help to focus or narrow your search to help you find exactly what you are looking for.  An important strategy is to search exactly what you are looking for.  If you are searching for non-verbal gestures, do not use communication.  Narrow your search from the beginning and if you do not find anything, then widen it.  Information overload is common when searching.


  • Break your topic into keywords or concepts. e.g. What role does motivation play in children struggling academically in secondary school?

    Keywords: motivation, children, struggling, academically, secondary school

  • Think about words similar to your keywords (synonyms) or words that will fit better in the academic environment.
  • Play around with different keywords to find different results. e.g. motivation, child, school versus motivation, coping, classroom to get a feel for the different results.

Remember!  Different countries have different spelling for words.  Concepts are also different, especially the school environment e.g. middle school versus primary school.  Too few keywords will give to many results and vice versa.  Incorrect spelling will not yield any results.  Phrases should prefebly not be longer than 2 words.

2. Find the Appropriate Database
Get to know the databases in your field.  Different databases cover different subject areas.  

These words(also called Boolean operators) are used to combine and differentiate between search terms. placed between two words and means both words must appear in the results.  This will help to narrow your search.
e.g. cognitive AND psychology will retrieve all results which contain both keywords. placed between words means that either word or both words may appear in the results. This will broaden your search.
e.g.  elderly OR aged will retrieve all references with elderly or aged, as well as references with both terms. placed between words and means that the second word must not appear in any reference. This will narrow your search.
e.g. psychology NOT psychiatry will retrieve all references with psychology, except references which also include psychiatry.

NEAR....retrieve keywords in the same sentence or paragraph.  e.g. television NEAR ADHD will retrieve references that contain television and ADHD in close proximity of each other.  This will narrow your search.

4. Truncation
Databases have nifty plans to help you with your search.  Sometimes a root word can have multiple endings. Truncating such words with an * will retrieve all the alternative keywords.  e.g. adjust* = adjusts, adjusting, adjustment, adjustments.

Some databases also provide internal truncation to ease searching of alternative spellings. e.g.  p?ediatric will retrieve paediatric and pediatric.

These truncation symbols can vary from database to database. Familiarise yourself with each database's requirements by consulting the Help screens or Searching Tips.

5. Phrase searching
It is sometimes very useful to be able to search a whole phrase.  Anger and teenagers will not yield the same results as anger in teenagers.  Phrase searching narrows the search and helps to pinpoint results.    Enclosing the phrase in double quotation marks will narrow the search to the phrase only.  e.g. “anger in teenagers”

Some databases have a separate box for phrase searching.

6. Limiting the results
Databases can help you to limit your search results.  Examples of such limiters will be only (full text) articles, or articles published between (date) and (date) or articles limited to (specific journal).  Most databases will also give a combination of these limiters.  

7. Searching specific fields
This is another way to limit or narrow your search results.  Databases help you to choose specific field descriptors such as the title of journal, title of the article, author, subject and abstract.  e.g. Putting Freud in the author field will give results for articles written by Freud while putting Freud in the subject field will give articles about Freud.

8.  Thesaurus
Sometimes it is difficult to know which synonyms are in the database for keywords you have chosen.  Many databases have a thesaurus to help you search for alternative terms.

Remember to specify in the database whether you want the full text article or not.  Databases have records of nearly all existing articles but full text articles are mostly limited to the past 15 years or so.  This is however getting better as older articles are being digitized.  

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