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University of Washington Health Sciences Library

How to Improve Database Search Results: Home

A how-to guide on improving database search results.

How to Improve Database Search Results

No References or Too Few References

  • Look for misspellings in your strategy.
  • Decrease the number of concepts searched.
  • Try a broader search term.
  • Use a term from the thesaurus (i.e., MeSH or subject heading list) for searching.
  • Use the Related Articles or Similar Articles feature.
  • Check for missing or incorrect field qualifiers.
  • Remove terms that are unlikely to be used by an author.
  • Replace terms that are too general or too specific.
  • Increase the number of synonyms or alternatives for a term.
  • Use a truncation symbol at the end of a term to pick up variant endings.
  • Try running the search on earlier years (back files) of the database.
  • Try a different database.

Too Many References

  • Choose the most specific subject headings or most significant key words.
  • Use subheadings to narrow the focus of the subject heading if appropriate.
  • Increase the number of search concepts that are ANDed together.
  • Use fewer synonyms for terms.
  • Make sure synonyms are grouped within parentheses (term_a1 OR term_a2 OR term_a3) AND term_b.
  • Make a term from the thesaurus (i.e. subject heading list or controlled vocabulary) the main focus of the article ("major" in PubMed and "focus" in CINAHL).
  • Limit to review articles.
  • Limit your search to type of article, language, age group, current years, etc.
  • Ask for significant words to be in the TITLE of the article.
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