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InfoWise is an information literacy programme developed by Nelson Mandela University Library and Information Services.

Develop a search strategy

When you are beginning to search for information it is important to develop a search strategy that will assist you to find relevant information. A search strategy is a plan for how to search for information.

You will need to:

Identify keywords (main concepts) in your topic

Once you have read generally about your topic, you should have a better idea of the keywords under which you will probably find information about your topic. So, before you can start your search, you should make a list of all the possible keywords that you can use when you start searching for information.

Why do you need keywords?

This can help you to define your focus and it will be a useful tool once you start searching, especially if your first search attempts don’t find much that’s useful.

Where do you get your keywords from?

Your initial keywords can be found in your assignment topic. While you were doing background reading you should have encountered other possible keywords under which you will probably find information about your topic.

Tip Identify the central essential concepts in your topic as your keywords. Avoid words that are vague or have multiple meanings.



The assignment topic: "Is memory loss related to aging?" has two main concepts:

  • memory loss
  • aging

List of alternative terms for keywords

You may lose a lot of useful information if you do not search for the alternative terms of your keywords. Using different words will retrieve different information; therefore use all possible words when you search for information.


When deciding on alternative terms for your keywords, think of:

  •  Synonyms
  •  Alternative spellings
  •  Abbreviations / Acronyms
  •  Broader or narrower meanings of your original keywords



In this chart you will see an example of a topic where keywords are identified as well as possible alternatives to the initial keywords.

The topic is:"Discuss the therapy for TB"

Alternative terms

Use search techniques to combine keywords

We use search techniques with the identified keywords to make the search for information more focused with more relevant search results.

You can use more than one search technique at a time.

Basic search techniques include:

Boolean Operators

(including or avoiding specific terms)


(using part of a keyword)

Phrase Searching

(using exact strings of words)

Search techniques


AND Operator

You use the AND operator to combine two or more keywords/terms. When using AND, you will only retrieve information that includes both these keywords/terms. The use of this operator will give you fewer results.

Tip picture 

Databases differ in how they use the AND operator and can indicate it in any of the following ways:

  • AND in capital letters between keywords, e.g. education AND reform
  • and in small letters between keywords, e.g. education and reform
  • often there are several search rows to input your keywords; each linked by AND

Boolean AND



Look at the"Help" function of each database to see how you should indicate the AND operator for that particular database.

OR Operator

The OR operator is used to broaden your search and to give more results. This is useful when you have identified synonyms or alternative terms to use in your search, e.g. woman or female.


  Databases differ in how they indicate the OR operator and can indicate it in

 any of the following ways:

  • OR in capital letters between keywords, e.gtherapy OR treatment
  • or in small letters between keywords, e.gtherapy or treatment


 Look at the "Help" function of each database to see how you should indicate the OR operator for that particular database.



NOT Operator

You use the NOT operator to exclude certain information from your results. This operator will give you fewer results.


Databases differ in how they indicate the NOT operator and can indicate it in any of the following ways:

  • NOT in capital letters before keyword(s) to be excluded, e.g. virus NOT computer

  • not in small letters before keyword(s) to be excluded, e.g. virus not computer

  • and not is used by some databases to exclude keywords, e.g. virus and not computer


 Look at the "Help" function of each database to see how you should indicate the NOT operator for that particular database.

What is truncation?

Truncation means to cut off a point or to shorten. When used with keywords, it means to keep the stem of the keywords and "cut" everything else away, leaving it out. Truncation uses a symbol to represent all possible endings of a keyword.

Effect truncation has on your search results

Truncation can increase the number of results found, by finding variations of a keyword. Some results you find may not be relevant to your topic.

Truncation Symbols

There is no standard symbol; a range of symbols can be used.

 Common truncation symbols include the symbol * or the symbol ?


 Look at the "Help" function of each database to see which symbol you should use to indicate truncation in that particular database.



When you type politi* (stem + truncation symbol) you will retrieve all documents with the following words:

truncation of politi












BE CAREFUL not to truncate a keyword too soon, otherwise you will receive many unwanted results. For example: if you truncated the above example at polit* in stead of politi*, you would also receive search results on politepolitessepolity, etc.

Truncation can also be very useful if you are not sure how to spell a word. Type all the letters that you are sure of and add the truncation symbol.

What is phrase searching?

Phrase searching allows you to search for particular words in a particular order. A phrase search retrieves two or more words only when they appear next to each other as a phrase, e.g. “higher educationSouth Africa.


What effect will phrase searching have on your search results?

Using the phrase search option will narrow your search and the records retrieved should be more relevant. Phrase searching can reduce the number of results you find. It can also increase the relevancy of your results.


Databases differ in how they indicate phrase searching and can indicate it in any of the following ways:

  • Use quotation marks to indicate phrase searching, e.g. “project management”
  • Use adj between keywords, e.g. project adj management


Help Look at the "Help" function of each database to see how you should indicate phrase searching for that particular database.

NB: Use phrase searching with care: searching for a phrase could also eliminate useful records. For example, a phrase search for "language teaching" would not find the words "teaching of language".

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