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Environmental Sciences

Library Subject Guide for Environmental Sciences

Tips for Great Strategies

The Library provides access to hundreds of databases, which vary from broad coverage of general news to access to literature in a specific subfield of science. The results you get from any of the Library's databases (such as, Web of Science, Biological Abstracts, etc.) truly depend on the terms you use to search.  This page gives you some pointers for expanding your vocabulary, and refining your search strategy to get the most out of it.  Questions?  Ask a Librarian!!!

Build a Search Strategy



1.  Write down as much information about your topic as possible.  

  • What is your topic? 
  • What questions do you have?
  • What do you know?  What don’t you know?

2.  SUMMARIZE your topic in one sentence/question.  Make sure your topic can answer three of the following questions: who, what, where, when, why, how?



3.  Using the summary sentence/question in #2, list the main concepts of your paper.



4.  Using the concepts in #3 as headings, think of as many synonyms for those words as you can- both broad and narrow!



Concept A

Concept B

Concept C

Concept D






  5.  After you come up with synonyms for your search terms, build a strategy with multiple words! 

Here is an example.  Imagine that you have three terms for Concept A (a1, a2, a3), one term for Concept B (b1), and two terms for Concept C (c1 and c2).  Imagine also that you know you do not want to have any results referring to Concept c3. Here is what the search strategy would look like:


(a1 OR a2 OR a3) AND b1 AND (c1 OR c2) NOT c3


Searching Tips

1. Break your topic up into ‘concepts.’ i.e. If we were searching on “Impact of bacteria on water quality in a tidal marsh,” you may separate your search into three concepts: bacteria AND water quality AND tidal marsh

2. Create lists of words- to broaden your search strategy. i.e. For water quality, in this case, you may also search water pollution, water contamina* etc.

3. Start general- and then get more focused once you learn more about your topic.

4. Combine your terms wisely- using AND . . . OR

“AND”- your concepts (microorganism* AND water* AND marsh*)
“OR”- your synonyms (bacteri* AND (tidal* OR estuar* OR marsh*))

5. Use TRUNCATION. This is when you search on the root of a word, to broaden you search. For contamination, I would search on contamina*- which would retrieve contamination, contaminant, contaminated, . . . etc.

6. If you are looking for a specific phrase, use quotation marks: "tidal marsh", "water quality" etc.

7. After you start getting results, take clues from the records. Look at the article’s title, abstract, “keywords,” “subjects” or “subject headings.” If you find good words, write them down. You can use these in subsequent searches; you should not settle for the results from your first search. Searching will become easier, as well as more powerful when refined in this way.

8. Don’t be afraid to search again and again and again. It is unlikely that you will get all you need the first time around!