Biology 360L: General Botany

Advanced Search Techniques & Tips

  1. Remember that you'll need to conduct numerous searches to approach all the angles of your project. Consider all the different questions you have to answer and focus on one at a time:
    • general importance of herbivory
    • importance of the traits you're addressing to plant fitness
    • why your plant is interesting
    • studies testing the response of your traits to defoliation
    • studies with similar methodology or patterns of artificial defoliation
  2. Break each search down into major concepts/keywords. If you are looking for articles discussing variation in flower color within the genus Brassica, you might come up with these four concepts: flowers; color; variation; and the rapeseed/canola plant.
  3. Are there synonyms or closely related terms you should use? Library databases interpret your search literally (unlike a database like Google, which interprets your terms automatically). Try select search terms that are likely to return quality results. When you don't get the results you expect, think about word alternatives and revise your search.

    For our first concept, we might search for the word "flower" as well as parts of the flower that are likely to show color, like petals or sepals.

    For variation, we might choose words like "varies" or "variety" in addition to "variation." In addition, think about the forces that drive this variation. What else could you use as a search term?

    Take advantage of taxonomy! You can search, very specifically, at the species level: "Brassica napus". You can also broaden your search by including other organisms from the same genus (e.g. search all of the genus Brassica). Keep in mind that while it may still be useful to go up to the family level, going higher than that may make your search too broad. Make that decision based on the context of your research question.
  4. Use combining terms AND, OR, and NOT between your search terms. OR should be used between synonyms, as in you want your search to contain one of the synonyms, either A or B. AND should be used between major concepts, as in you want your search to contain both C and D. NOT can be used if you want to exclude terms from your results; this is especially useful if you do a search and notice that the scope is off (ex: habitat NOT tropical). Use parenthesis or separate search boxes to communicate an order of operations between terms, like you do in math. It helps to combine all synonyms for a single concept in one pair of parentheses/search box; then all synonyms for the second concept in a second pair of parentheses/search box, and so on.
  5. Use truncation and wildcards. The asterisk (*) is used as a truncation symbol in many library databases to expand to alternate word endings. You can look for singular/plural forms of words (petal* returns both petal and petals) or something more complex (flower* will return the singular and plural form of the word as well as "flowering"). Be careful with this symbol - if you truncate too early in the word, you may get a lot of false hits. Searching for "gene, genes, or genetics" is better searched explicitly rather than by using gen*, which would also return words like "general" and "gentrify."

    Some databases also allow you to search with a wildcard character (varies by database). In BIOSIS, you may use the dollar sign ($) to represent either zero or one character, or the question mark (?) to represent one character. Both will allow you to account for American and British English spellings or other variants. Most databases allow the asterisk (*), which allows for variant word endings (any character length).

    The $ can be used in the word color to give the British variant: colo$r returns results for "color" or colour."

    The question mark can account for other variants, as in the word "organisation" which may also be spelled as "organization." Replace the s/z with the symbol: organi?ation, and return both forms.
  6. Use filters to further target your search. Filters (usually located in the left-hand sidebar) vary by database but can be a powerful way to focus your search. These may include date, format/article type, citation data, author, subject areas or major concepts, citation data, language, and more.