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University of Wollongong Australia

Literature Review: How to search effectively

Help to get you started with your literature review. Identify where to search for information, learn how to search more effectively, and discover tools to manage your results.
Searching for information is a process and you won't always get it right the first time. Find ways to improve your results, change your search and try again until you are happy with what you have found.


Keep track of your searches so you can save and rerun them, store references, and set up regular alerts for new research relevant to your topic. Most library databases allow you to register with a personal account.

TIP: Look for a 'log in', 'sign in' or 'register' button to get started.

Download our Search Tracker to keep everything in one place.

There are also free and subscription reference management programs available on the web or for loading onto your computer. The University has a license for EndNote, but Zotero is another tool you could use.

Look at your research topic or question.

  • What are the main ideas?
  • What concepts or theories have you already covered?
  • Write down your main ideas, synonyms, related words and phrases.


  • If you are looking for particular types of research, you can use these as search words. E.g. qualitative, quantitative, methodology, review, survey, test, trend (and more).
  • Be mindful of UK and US spelling variations. E.g. organisation OR organization, ageing OR aging.

Try the Search Word Generator to help you identify your search words.

Use AND between words which represent the main ideas in the question.

E.g. adolescent AND “physical activity”

This will find results with both of the search words.

Use OR between words that mean the same thing.

E.g. adolescent OR teenager

This search will find either (or both) of the search words

Use NOT to exclude words that you don’t want in your search results

E.g. (adolescent OR teenager) NOT “young adult”

Truncation *

This symbol * will help you to search for different word endings.

E.g. teen* will find results with the words: teen, teens, teenager, teenagers

Specific truncation symbols will vary. Check the 'Help' section of the database you are searching.

Phrase searching “...........”

Double quotation marks help you to search for common phrases and will make your results more relevant.

E.g. “physical activity” will find results with the words physical activity together as a phrase

Wildcards ?

Wildcard symbols allow you to search for spelling variations within the same or related terms.

E.g. wom?n will find results with women OR woman

Specific wild card symbols will vary. Check the 'Help' section of the database you are searching.

Proximity  w/#

Proximity searching allows you to specify where your search terms will appear in relation to each other

E.g. pain w/10 morphine will search for pain within ten words of morphine

Specific proximity symbols will vary. Check the 'Help' section of the database you are searching.

All library databases are different and you can't always search and refine in the same way. Try to be consistent when transferring your search in the library databases you have chosen.

You can narrow and refine your search results in databases by:

  • year of publication or date range (for recent or historical research)
  • document or source type (e.g. article, review or book)
  • subject or keyword (for relevance). Try repeating your search using the 'subject' headings or 'keywords' field to focus your search
  • searching in particular fields, i.e. citation and abstract. Explore the available dropdown menus to change the fields to be searched
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Practice your search skills

These self-paced tutorials will help you practice searching library databases more effectively.

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