Skip to Main Content

CHM 381 / 681: Chemistry Seminar & Literature: Search Techniques

Consult each tab below for great ways to build your search string in library databases. Remember each database has a HELP screen that can provide additional tools to assist with searching. 

Click on each tab for tutorials on ways to enhance your searches!

Choosing KEYWORDS is an important step in searching in any library database. Being library databases do not function like Google - where natural language is recognized and understood - you must choose keywords and build a search string for best results. 

Follow these steps to help get your research started: 


Your personal, interpersonal, and publication review experiences should guide you in determining your research topic and / or questions. Or perhaps your professor has determined and shared a set of topics for you to choose from. Either way and by design, literature reviews should shape and adjust your original topic or question. Be flexible when starting your research journey! 


Once you determine your research question, start listing keywords you will use in library databases. Check out this example to help you with this step: 

QUESTION: How are plastics being used in film mulching procedures in Asia? 



Once you identify the keywords from your research question, use thesaurus and indexing tools to find other words that could have the same meaning. 

Use Word Hippo to find synonyms for your key words. Example: PLASTICS are also POLYMERS and ACRYLICS

Library of Congress Subject Headings and Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) are also helpful to build better searches. 

Check out this 3-minute video from the National Library of Medicine for an overview of MeSH:

BOOLEAN OPERATORS are words (used in computer science and mathematics) that connect key words together to expand / narrow results. Boolean operators can be used in library research databases or when using ZSR's Primo (our library catalog). 

Here's how BOOLEAN OPERATORS work with some diagrams to help explain: 


Narrows your search results by limiting to those that contain BOTH words connected with AND. Here we see results for a search for folks who need their cookies AND milk together at all times!


Expands your search results by including those that contain one word, the other word, or both words. Here we see results for a search for folks who can have cookies and milk together OR separately. They'll enjoy them either way!


Narrows your search results by limiting to those that contain the word appearing before NOT but not the word after NOT. Here we see results for a search for folks who are just in the mood for cookies (or maybe they're vegan and / or lactose intolerant). 

Database filters can be used to narrow your search results based on your research requirements. Here are descriptions and images of filter options from some of the most widely used chemistry - related databases. 


Specific date ranges to include only results published within certain time frames. Choose the most recent  literature published in the last 5 years for instance, or choose specific date ranges:


Choose scholarly, peer-reviewed options if you're looking for literature: 

  • written by scholars in a specific field of study
  • from academic institutions
  • that includes citations in footnotes, bibliographies, or works cited
  • that has been through the peer-reviewed process
  • void of advertisements and photographs


Choosing the full text option will ensure the database is retrieving literature ZSR has access to. With access to full text articles, will be able to read, download, share, or upload it to your citation manager (SEE ZOTERO options to the LEFT on this page). 


Your professor may ask you to include primary sources in your research. If so, be sure to check (include) original research articles, clinical trials, or randomized controlled trials. Secondary sources include any type of review (systematic, scoping, meta-analysis), editorial, and books. Good research includes a balance of many source types!

Search MODIFIERS are powerful tools that help you refine your results and provide specific directions to the databases during your search. 


Phrasing includes quotations marks and is helpful when two or more words need to follow each other in a search. This technique helps to narrow your results. 

For example, if the phrase CHAIN REACTION is included in your research question, be sure to enter it as "CHAIN REACTION" in your database search field. This will indicate to the database that you are looking for these two words together. The database will then narrow your search as opposed to searching for the words CHAIN and REACTION separately.

Searching CHAIN REACTION in Web of Science yields 445,000 results; "CHAIN REACTION" in the same database yields 330,000 results. 


Using an asterisk will modify searches and truncate certain keywords that have different variations.

The following example includes the keyword FERMENT. Including an asterisk when searching this term will allow for databases used to include all of these terms:


Using FERMENT only in Web of Science yields 53,000 results. Using FERMENT* in the same database yields 222,000 results. 

Asterisks may be used at the beginning and ends of keywords to help expand your results. 


Parentheses are used to tell the database the order in which the search should be conducted and will narrow your search results. This is useful if you have several keywords in one search. Keywords in placed in () - or grouped - will be searched first followed by what is outside the brackets.

Consider this search string example: (plastic OR polymers OR acrylic) AND agriculture

PLASTIC, POLYMERS, and ACRYLIC, which appear in the (), will be searched first & relative to AGRICULTURE, which appears outside the (). 

Performing this search without () yields 1.5M results in Web of Science. With the (), the search yields 35,000 results. 

PROXIMITY: n# = near

The proximity search tool allows for a more precise search. Using the indicator n# will signal to the database you want keywords to appear within a certain number of words from each other and in any order. See the example below: 

climate n3 denial:

This search will yield results where the terms CLIMATE and DENIAL appear no more than 3 words from each other in the title or abstract of the publication: climate denial, denial of climate, etc. 


Profile Photo
Colleen Foy
ZSR Library, Mandelbaum Room, Office 457B