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English - Controversial Topics: Database Search Tips

This guide focuses on searching for information about controversial topics.

Database Search Tips

  1. Be prepared with synonyms in case your original search produces no results. If the database offers a link to a thesaurus or subject terms tab, use it to locate additional or related words for your search terms.
  2. Pay attention to search tips or help screens provided by each database. Take the time to learn how to use the tool - it will help you to avoid frustration!
  3. Remember that most databases allow for Boolean Searching (see the video in this guide). Use and to narrow, or to expand, not to exclude. Truncation is also useful for bringing back all relevant results. For example, type counsel* to bring back documents containing the words counsel, counseling, counselor...
  4. Review the database search screen for a Thesaurus or Subject Terms tab or link.
  5. Review articles, the references with this article, look for sections listing key words or subject terms, and relationships to your focus on the topic.


Depending on the database, it may offer a variety of ways to limit your results:

  • Full Text
  • Scholarly or Peer Reviewed
  • Publication  or Document Type (journal articles, book reviews, reports)
  • Published Date

For articles that are not available in full text, use the InterLibrary Loan service.

Controlled Vocabulary

Most databases use a controlled vocabulary to organize information and make browsing more efficient and specific to chosen terms. When building your search string, consider keywords, synonyms or related terms. See several examples in the table below.

Subject Terms Related Terms
Doping in sports Performance-enhancing drugs
Computer crimes Cyberbullying, cyberstalking, cyberterrorism, Internet fraud
Body image Sexual objectification, Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia


Combine or group terms or concepts using the Boolean operator "AND" to refine your search string:  computer crimes AND cyberbullying or try the search string:  body image AND bulimia . Check to see if the database offers a Thesaurus or a Subject Terms tab or link. For instance, the database Academic Search Premier offers a "subject terms" tab, and the ERIC database features a "thesaurus" tab, while ProQuest offers a "thesaurus" link.  Enter terms in the Browsing box to see how the database recognizes them.

Searching by topic

Searching by topic: Using the general database Academic Search Premier, click on the "Subject Terms" tab and enter the topic, death penalty and consider related terms. Sometimes other terms will be given to use such as capital punishment in place of death penalty. Although one can find articles using the words death penalty, the subject heading used in this database is capital punishment. See screen shot below:Screenshot of Subject Terms in the EBSCO database Academic Search Premier

Creating a search string

Select the subject heading to see if the database provides more information about it or broader, narrower, or related terms, which can assist in building a search about the topic. Example: capital punishment AND lethal injection AND prisons. When a good article is found, check to see how it is indexed (what subject terms are used). These terms or additional keywords provide ways to create a new search or to combine with the original search term.
Screenshot from EBSCO database illustrating a search string example using the "Advanced Search"

Boolean Operators - Tutorial

Searching multiple databases

YouTube video created by NSU Libraries on how to search multiple EBSCOhost databases simultaneously.