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Writing a Research Paper

Working with Keywords

You can use keywords by entering them into search fields in any order, but you can do far more than that. Many databases support the use of Boolean operators, exact phrase searching, and wild card symbols. What is all that, you ask? Check out each tab for more details.

(If you're looking for a guide on generating keywords, see the Exploratory Research section.)

Searches that include the words AND, OR, or NOT operate in a particular way in most databases. Rather than searching for those words (also known as "Boolean" operators), the database treats them as instructions on how to treat your search terms. These diagrams illustrate: 


As you can see, Boolean operators can give you a great deal more control over a search. Looking for an article on a particular topic? Use the AND operator to narrow your search to articles that include all your terms. Not sure which term scholars use for an idea? Use the OR operator to search for several synonyms at the same time. Are you getting a bunch of irrelevant results mixed in with relevant ones (i.e., you're looking for the cat "jaguar" but the search keeps returning the Jaguar car company)? Try the NOT operator to exclude certain results.

Sometimes it's not a keyword you're looking for, but a key phrase. Imagine you're looking for criticism on an important work with an ordinary-sounding title, like The Order of Things or The Theory of the Novel--how can you ensure that you don't end up with thousands of irrelevant results? The trick is to do an exact-phrase search, which you do by putting the phrase you're looking for between quotation marks. Thus, instead of searching for

the theory of the novel

try searching for

"the theory of the novel"

What if you're searching for an idea that uses many variations on a similar word? Take, for example:

psychology, psychologist, psychological

You could use the OR operator and type all of these (and more) into the search field, or you could use a wild card symbol, like this:


Be careful where you place your wild card. If, for example, you were to use


you might end up with results pertaining to the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. You can also use wild card symbols within words to accommodate varying spellings. For example:

color OR colour

can become


Note: Not all databases support this function; most that do use an asterisk (*) for their wild card, but some use a question mark (?).

These techniques can be used in combination to create targeted searches through the use of nested searches. Nested search involves using parentheses in combination with the operators already covered. For example, if you wanted (for some reason) to find articles that mention cats and either dogs or pigeons, you could use multiple Boolean operators in a search:

(cats AND (dogs OR pigeons))

You can also combine every technique into a very complex targeted search:

((film OR movie OR "motion picture") AND psychol* NOT "alfred hitchcock")

Note: It can be tempting to get carried away with creating precise searches like this, often with mixed results. If using these techniques is resulting in few or no articles being returned in your searches, remember to broaden your search, whether through eliminating keywords or by using the OR operator.

What Database(s) Should You Choose?

You've already been introduced to Academic Search Premier, but Cushing Library has a number of additional broad databases that can be useful in tracking down articles for your research. These are a great place to start, no matter your topic or question.

Also worth exploring is the work of the numerous think tanks engaged in research and analysis. Brookings and RAND are two examples, but Harvard's Kennedy School has created a custom search engine that searches the work of many more.

Important note: It's vital that you get background information on a think tank before deciding to use its work. Think tanks produce a great deal of important and influential research, but they often also have policy agendas that may influence the work they do. (This can, of course, be particularly useful when exploring many sides of a controversial topic.)

Working on Other Topics?

The library maintains a variety of subject-specific research guides that can point you to additional helpful databases.

What is "Peer Review," Anyway?

Often your papers will require that you use "peer-reviewed" articles. While that idea sounds pretty straightforward, it's important to understand what that means in an academic context. This video provides a concise overview of just that:

Citation Hunting

Using keywords to search databases is a great way to find sources, but it's not the only way. Writers and researchers are always working in conversation with others who've come before them, and conveniently, they'll often tell you exactly what writing they're responding to and where to find it. In many ways, a bibliography (aka "references" or "works cited") is the most valuable part of a book or article, because it will point you to more work on the same topic.

Finding a source's bibliography is refreshingly straightforward; you just go to the end of the article (or chapter or book), and it's waiting there for you (though sometimes the references will be in the footnotes at the bottom of each page).

If a bibliography let's you look in one direction, citation databases let you look in the other. In these database, you can see which articles have cited a source you're reading. Google Scholar is one such database. (You can reach Google Scholar through the Databases tab on the library's homepage. More information on setting up Google Scholar to interface with Cushing Library's website is available here.)

To access this feature, click on the "Cited By" link on the source record. This will lead you to a page (or pages) of article records that have cited that source, pointing you towards similar work that could be useful in your exploratory research. The "Related Articles" link can also be a useful trail to follow.

Try searching for the title of an article in the search field below:

Google Scholar Search