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BIOL Course Guide: Keywords

Searching in Databases

A database's search engine does not work just like Google. 


This means that you cannot type your entire research question/topic in the search box.  Instead, you must pull out the keywords that describe your topic and use only those keywords (or related terms).  Here's a short video on how to find the keywords of a research topic:

Finding Your Keywords

Sample Keywords

How does protein structure affect a patient's response to cancer treatment?

 1. What are the major concepts within your research question?

  • protein structure
  • cancer
  • treatment

2. Come up with a list of synonyms & related terms

  • protein OR structure OR drug protein
  • cancer OR breast cancer OR breast neoplasms
  • treatment OR protocol OR clinical protocol

Boolean Operators


Combining Your Keywords with Boolean Operators

Once you find your keywords, you then have to indicate the relationship between the keywords using Boolean operators AND, OR, or NOT.



  • AND finds results that contain all of the keywords
  • AND finds less results and helps narrow your search
  • Example Search: Strawberry AND Vanilla AND Chocolate will find results that contain all three flavors




  • OR finds results that contain at least one of the keywords (but not necessarily all)
  • OR finds more results and helps broaden your search (when you are not finding enough)
  • Example Search: Strawberry OR Chocolate OR Vanilla will find results that contain at least one of those flavors 





  • NOT excludes keywords from the results
  • NOT narrows your search but should be used cautiously to avoid accidental exclusions
  • Example Search: (Strawberry OR Vanilla) NOT Chocolate will find results Strawberry and/or Vanilla but excludes any results that mention Chocolate

(adapted from content created by Helen Hooper, Sharon Bryan, and Kylie Bartlett of James Cook University -- Writing Guide)