Power up your searches, Part 1

Need help supercharging your searches? Tired of sifting through thousands of results to find what you need? Here’s how you can use three tools to power up your searches in databases like JSTOR and ProQuest:

Not sure where to look for certain materials? Stay tuned for more tips in an upcoming post!

Boolean Operators

We often use Boolean operators without realizing it as they’re commonly used to combine or exclude keywords in a search. The most common are AND, OR, NOT, and apostrophes.

  • AND = Combines all words in a search, like Malaysia AND economy. This is useful to narrow your search results.
  • OR = This will return results with either word present. This is useful to broaden a search, for example, Thailand OR Siam will provide results with any of the words.
  • NOT = Excludes terms from searches, which is useful to narrow results. For example, Djakarta NOT Jakarta will help to narrow results to only those that mention Djakarta.
  • Apostrophes (“”) = Most useful for phrases or names, for example, “Southeast Asia” is more likely to provide results focused on Southeast Asia, instead of South Asia or East Asia. 

Boolean search is commonly supported in many search engines, including Google. Some databases also provide them as part of their search interface, usually under the advanced search options:

Image 1: JSTOR’s advanced search lets you add operators as needed.

Wildcards, Truncation, and Proximity Operators

Wildcards, truncation and proximity operators can be very useful, but not all platforms or sites support these functions so it’s always advisable to check out their search help. These are usually found through the site’s help or FAQ sections.  

Wildcards and truncation are most useful when searching for variations on a word:

  • Wildcards can be useful when searching for words with alternate spellings. For example, searching for organi?ation in ProQuest can provide results for organization and organisation. It’s also handy when you’re not quite sure how to spell something!
  • Truncation is similar but is best used when the words share similar roots. For example, econom& in JSTOR will provide results for economy, economics, economical and so on.
  • Proximity operators are used to look for terms within a set number of words apart from each other. For example, searching for climate NEAR/5 finance in ProQuest will provide results where the word climate and finance are within 5 words of each other:
Image 2: Proximity operators can be useful when searching for concepts.

It’s important to note that even if a platform supports these advanced features, how to use them will vary between individual platforms. This is what’s known as the search syntax – what words or symbols to use and how to structure them so the platform understands it.

For example, both JSTOR and ProQuest support proximity operators, but JSTOR uses the tilde symbol (the curly dash, ~) and ProQuest uses NEAR. ProQuest’s NEAR defaults to 4 words, but can be modified with certain syntax. Check out ProQuest’s search tips and JSTOR’s search FAQs for more details.

Subject Thesaurus

At first glance, the Advanced Search is straightforward but there are some useful features that can help users explore a bevy of related terms and subjects: the subject thesaurus. (Which, despite sounding quite similar, has no relation to dinosaurs.)

Image credit: Image by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

A subject thesaurus is an alphabetical listing of all the subject terms in a database that highlights relationships between subjects. Not all platforms or databases will have a subject thesaurus, but they can be useful to explore broader or narrower terms, or to discover relationships between related topics.

For example, economics is a vast field that encompasses many branches and specialties. A simple search will return millions of results. Using the thesaurus can be a good way to start finding narrower subjects to focus a search query.

ProQuest supports subject thesauri. To access it, go to ProQuest’s Advanced Search and click the Thesaurus link:

Image 4: The subject thesaurus is one way to conduct an advanced search.

Searching for economics in the thesaurus provides a list of related terms; select one or multiple options to narrow the subject field.

Image 5: Related terms can help pin down a specific subject.

It’s possible to explore hierarchies in the terms by clicking to expand certain terms. ProQuest will show related terms, and further clicks on the same phrase can show broader and narrower terms:

Image 6: Related terms can be useful in expanding a search.
Image 7: Broader terms are more general, while narrower terms are more focused. They can be combined with the Boolean operators OR, AND, NOT.

The subject terms in the thesaurus can be combined with other search terms in ProQuest’s Advanced Search – ProQuest has many options to let you refine your search from the start. For an even more targeted search, use the dropdown to tell ProQuest to search in specific fields, such as the abstract or subject. For a more general search, just select “Anywhere”!

Image 8: Combine terms and options with ProQuest’s powerful advanced search to help you find what you need.

Subject thesaurus terms can be combined with other fields in an advanced search. But bear in mind that using too many search limiters at one time can make your search too narrow and potentially exclude useful results.

Image 9: Subject thesaurus terms can be combined with other fields.

A simple search of economics can return a few million results, but taking advantage of the subject thesaurus and other fields can produce a much more manageable number of results. ProQuest offers a number of filters and facets on the left sidebar to help you further narrow down results.

Image 10: Use the filter sidebar to narrow down results further.

Most platforms and databases will have a basic search bar, but some have powerful advanced search options if you look a little further. Take advantage of them to power up your search and take it to the next level!

For more information, check out these resources:



Project Muse: Search help

Not sure what other resources are available at ISEAS Library? A great place to start is our Subscribed Resources page. Stay tuned for more tips in our next post!

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