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Postgraduate Research Information Skills Modules for coursework

Develop research skills during your postgraduate studies that will continue to benefit you throughout your academic and professional career.

Module 2: How to find and use literature

There are many ways and places to find literature to investigate and deepen your knowledge on your research topic. As a research candidate at Griffith University, you have access via Griffith Library to a wide range of high-quality information resources relevant to your subject area. This module will provide you with best practice guidance on how to find literature using these resources. To get the most from this module, please download the Research strategy template below.

In this module you will learn:

  • The methods to create keywords for searching.
  • The ways to search efficiently.
  • The techniques to build an extended search statement.
  • The ways to use search nesting and limiters.
  • The methods you can use subject headings in your searches.

Open the template below and fill out the appropriate areas as you search, this will help you build your research strategy and keep records of how you found what you found.

2.1 How to define keywords for searching

As part of your forthcoming confirmation, you will be required to demonstrate where your research topic and questions came from in the context of relevant literature. In order to do this, you first need to find literature to support your research.

Having a well defined research topic with a list of questions to investigate will put you in a good position to search effectively for literature that will support your research efforts.

Basics of a search statement: Keyword development

Analysing your research topic and questions will be your starting place to identify keywords, phrases, concepts, limiters to use when searching for literature across library catalogues, journal article databases, and internet search engines.

Keywords are search words that help you discover all the available content for a particular subject and can be derived from your research topic and questions, books and articles you have read and professional practice terminology.

Once you have your keywords you can then determine synonyms for each of these, so you can be as to be comprehensive as possible in your literature searching.

Boolean operators

Boolean operators AND, OR and NOT are the glue that hold your keywords together so journal article databases, library catalogues, and Internet search engines can retrieve results. They connect your search words together to either narrow or broaden your search.

Understanding the construction of a keyword search will allow you to work with single line search boxes (eg Google) or multiline/multifaceted search boxes such as those found in journal article databases and library catalogue advance search boxes.

For further clarification of Boolean searching, watch the video.

AND operator:

  • Narrows your search and limits results.
  • Ensures all search terms will be present in the results.
Example search: construction AND sustainability ---- finds and returns results with both keywords.


OR operator:

  • Broadens your search and the results.
  • Is used when searching on like keywords, synonyms or phrases.
  • Requires brackets as anything inside the brackets is searched first before anything outside.
Example search: (construction OR building) ---- finds and returns results with either or both keywords.


NOT operator:

Excludes words from your search.

  • Narrows your search and selectively limits your results.
  • Needs to be used carefully as NOT can omit some literature.
  • Should you find the NOT operator is not working, note that many databases will use AND NOT to omit key-terms eg: "evidence-based practice" AND NOT nursing.
Example search: success NOT money ---- finds and returns results, but excludes any result with the keyword "money" in the text.

How to build your search

Using the AND operator
  • music AND Mozart AND violin
Using the OR operator

When using the OR operator, brackets () limit the field of options. This is really important:

  • (climate OR weather)
  • (legal OR law)
NOT search

These searches remove terms from your searching. This is particularly important where there is significant cross over in the meaning of keywords or where the study is multidisciplinary, e.g., evidence-based practice, which is used in health and education.

  • (trauma OR damage) NOT brain
  • ("classroom teaching" AND "evidence-based practice") NOT nursing

2.2 Extended search techniques

Phrase searching

Keywords can be more than one word like "global warming". This is a phrase. When you search with a phrase the database/library catalogue returns results where the words in the phrase are found in the exact order they are entered.

Phrase searching:
  • Uses double quotation marks “ ” to enclose the phrase.
  • Narrows your search and limits your results.


Sometimes there are different ways to spell a keyword, or you may have just forgotten how to spell it. But there is help at hand with the search feature known as truncation. The following video will show you how to truncate search terms in greater detail.

  • Typically uses the * symbol.
  • Is useful to find variations in word endings.
  • Requires you to be careful to use a word stem that relates to your meaning.
  • Symbol may vary between databases and internet tools, so check the help section of each database.
Example search: creat* ---- will find and return the following: create, creates, creator, creative, creativity.


Following on from truncation, there are times when you will encounter keywords, particularly in the English language where there is regional variation in the way words are spelled or you need to find the single and plural versions of a word in the search results. To overcome this, use a wildcard symbol.

A wildcard:
  • Typically uses the ? symbol.
  • Is used to find different spellings of words, particularly American or British variations.
  • Helps with finding single and plural forms of words in the literature.
  • Symbol may vary between databases and internet tools, so check the help section of each database.
Example search: (woman or women) = wom?n


Example search: (behaviour or behavior) = behav?or

Extended research string examples

Phrase searching:
"climate change" AND "global warming"
("climate change" OR "global warming") AND "greenhouse gases"
("volcanic earthquake" OR seismology) NOT "Los Angeles"
Truncation and Wildcard searching:
(barrister OR law*) will find and return results containing barrister, law, laws, lawyer, lawn, lawns, "lawn mower".
"Old growth forest" AND environ* will find and return results containing "old growth forest", environ, environs, environment, environmental, environmentalist.
(m?n OR wom?n) AND "family structur*" will find and return man, men, woman, women, family structure, family structures.


Use the Literature search template to write out your search topic, terms and search strings. This form will help you clarify your approach to searching and help you to reproduce the search later in your research.

2.3 Search limiters

If you have ever searched Google you will know that it can provide millions of results. As a researcher, this is not that helpful as there are too many results to look at. To avoid this issue, put limits on your search. Depending on the database, library catalogue or search engine you use to find literature, there are typically ways to limit before you search and/or to refine your results after the search. Look out for these limiting features next time you search. Limiting your search will increase the relevancy of the results, saving you time and effort.

The following are types of limiters you will see in a library catalogue or a journal article database:

  • Keywords: AND searches with lots of keywords/phrases (3 or more) will limit the number of results, as the addition of more keywords makes the search very specific, as it must return results with all keywords.
  • Subject Defined: Subject headings are used in journal article databases and library catalogues to control records. Using them can link you to other relevant resources.
  • Media Format: Most catalogues and databases allow you to limit your searches by formats like journal article, book chapter, eBook, print, DVD, CD, video stream, audio stream, etc.
  • Resource Type: Some databases allow you to limit by the type of journal article such as full text, peer-reviewed, scholarly, trade, reviews.
  • Date Range: A date limiter is a great way of reducing results set to something like: 2002 - 2010, Last 5 years, All dates etc.
  • Location: Limiting by location such as Nathan, Mt Gravatt, Logan, Gold Coast and South Bank can help you find physical items on library shelves, for example print books and journals, DVDs, and CDs.
  • Language: Limiting by language, for example, English, French, German or Mandarin, is a useful feature for isolating literature you can make sense of quickly.

2.4 Subject headings

Journal article databases and library catalogues make use of subject headings to control and categorise information. Subject headings are defined and controlled and are widely used in information resources and databases. There are several ways to make use of subject headings to improve your searching and results.

Method 1:
Find a relevant book in the library catalogue, click the title and it takes you to the individual catalogue record for the book. Look towards the bottom of the record for the subject headings. See this catalogue record for the subject headings. Click on the subject headings to find all the other resources in the Library with the same subject heading.
Method 2:
Use the subject headings found in the library catalogue or database records as keywords in your search statements.
Method 3:
When looking at search results in the Griffith Library catalogue, subject headings of items in the results list will display on the left hand side. By clicking on the subject heading, you will be able to limit the number of results, refining and producing more relevant results.