Biology 360L: General Botany

Advanced Search Techniques & Tips

  1. Remember to break your search apart into its major concepts. 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 Brassica.
  2. 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. 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 quite useful to go up to the family level, going higher than that may make your search too broad. Make that decision based upon the context of your research question.
  3. Use truncation and wildcards. The truncation symbol is typically the asterisk (*) and is used to expand 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."

    Not all databases allow you to search with a wildcard character, and the symbol will vary. 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.
  4. Don't forget the difference between searching keywords (called "topic" in BIOSIS and Web of Science) and words in the article title. Check out the other options for search terms, too.