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Systematic Searching for Health Science Research

Tips for Advanced Searching


Putting the asterisk symbol at the end of the root of keyword can increase the sensitivity of your search and help you find more results


electrotherap*=electrotherapy, electrotherapies, electrotherapeutic

Keep in Mind: The * symbol is more effective in some databases than others.

Controlled Vocabulary Versus Keywords

Most databases (with the exception of Web of Science) have what is called controlled vocabulary or index terms. Controlled vocabulary refers to the standardized terms that the indexers of the database use to "tag" article abstracts and make them easier for the user to find. Working with controlled vocabulary terms can help you identify relevant articles.  However, you may have more commonly used terms when you are talking with another clinician or a patient. This is "natural language" or just regular keywords. When preparing for an advanced search, it can be helpful to use both controlled vocabulary and natural language.

Combining Search Terms with Boolean Operators

Combining keywords or phrases with the word AND tells the database to look for articles that include BOTH words. Example: adhesive capsulitis AND electrotherapy modalities




Combining keywords or phrases with the word OR tells the database to look for articles that include EITHER or BOTH the words. This expands your results, and is useful when you want the database to look for synonyms.

Example: adhesive capsulitis OR frozen shoulder


Combing keywords and phrases with the word NOT tells the database to eliminate articles that have the keyword you specify.

Example: Adhesive Capsulitis NOT infant

Tip: When you are combining terms with AND and OR, it is helpful to capitalize them. This lets the database know that you are looking to combine terms, and that you are not looking for articles that contain the keyword and.

Phrase Searching & Proximity Searches

Phrase searching allows you specify when you are looking for a specific phrase. For example, if you are looking for articles on "adhesive capsulitis", the quotation marks tell the database not to search for the keyword "adhesive" apart from "capsulitis."

Note: Most of BU's databases will do a phrase search when you enclose your keywords in double quotation marks. The exception is Embase, which only requires 'single quotation marks' when searching for phrases.

Database Operators
PubMed No proximity operators available in PubMed

NEAR/n  (example: Plantar Fasciitis NEAR/5 rehabilitation)

NEXT/n (example:Plantar Fasciitis NEXT/5 rehabilitation)

CINAHL & PsycInfo

Near(N) operator: (example: Plantar Fasciitis N5 rehabilitation)

Within Operator (W): the W tells the database to search for keywords that appear within a certain number of words and the order which you specify. (example plantar fasciitis W3 pain tells the database to look for the word "pain" within three words after "plantar fasciitis")


Web of Science NEARx (example: plantar fasciitis NEAR5 pain)


Search Syntax Translation Tools

A search strategy and keyword combination that works in one database may not work as well in another. Fortunately, there are some guides to help you translate your search strategy from one database to another. Here are a few tools:

Health Sciences Librarian

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Kate Silfen
Mugar Memorial Library