Sometimes when you are searching for information on a a very specific topic, your initial search may retrieve little or no information. In these cases, you may need to broaden your search.

Using synonyms

Synonyms are words that have the same meaning, for example "car" and "automobile".

Using synonyms as alternative keywords will help you find information that is about your topic, but that may use different words to describe it.

A thesaurus is a list of synonyms and can help you identify some alternative words. Many databases include their own thesaurus. For example, by looking in the thesaurus of a database, you might be told to use the word "building "instead of "structure".

Many thesauri are also published as reference books, for example Roget's Thesaurus. You can find copies of thesauri in the libraries or online.

Combining keywords

Rather than carrying out different searches for each of the synonyms you have found, you can search using two or more synonyms at the same time. The words are linked together using principles known as 'Boolean logic'.

To make your search broader, try using 'OR' to combine your synonyms. For example, the search "House OR home OR dwelling", will find all articles or books that use any of these synonyms.

Different databases may have different ways of combining keywords, so check the help screens of the database to find out how you should combine terms. Look in the indexes for terms like 'search tips' or 'Boolean searching'.

Using truncation and wildcards

Truncation or stemming is a way to search for all the different forms of a word using the stem of the word.

For example, searching for architec* would also search for the words 'architect', 'architects' or 'architecture'.

Note: Don't truncate the word too soon. For example, if you were looking for articles about 'negligence' and you used the word stem neglig* you may not get the results you need.

Asterisks or question marks (known as 'wildcard characters' in Boolean logic) can be used to replace letters in the middle of words. They are useful if you don't know the correct spelling of a word or if the spelling can vary. For example, searching for organi*ation would find both 'organisation' and 'organization'.

Different databases may use different characters for truncation or wildcards. For example, some databases use an asterisk and some use a question mark. The help screens will tell you if you can use truncation and wildcards, and which characters you should use to represent missing letters.