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Generating search terms: Get going

What are search terms?

Search terms that you use are crucial for a good search result. It is advisable to make an exhaustive list of terms related to your topic. With hindsight you will often conclude that using too few or missing preferred scholarly terms resulted in missing crucial publications.

Structure of this guide

  • Get going: the most important tips
  • Find out more: theory, exceptions, special cases
  • Info elsewhere: links to related LibGuides, useful websites and news
  • Feedback & contact: for questions and suggestions

The importance of the right search terms

Most search systems are relatively stupid: all they do is check if the search terms you entered occur in a title, text or summary. If your term is not there (but a related term or a term with a slightly different spelling is) you will not find the publication or web page. So it is important you try to think of possible terms which could possibly occur in a text.

The right word...

Lingo voorbeeld

It may take a while before you hit on the right word. Keep trying!

Tips for generating search terms

  1. Write down terms and concepts that first come to mind when thinking about your topic
  2. Use Wikipedia, subject encyclopedias and literature you already found to find terms revolving around your topic.
  3. Think "in terms of" the publication to be found: what words are likely to be used in the piece you hope to find?
  4. Keep in mind the different types of search terms: synonyms, translations, broader and narrower terms etc..
  5. Based on the search results, adjust the search terms in your search to get a bigger "catch" with fewer non-relevant hits
  6. Make use of the tools many search systems have to offer (suggestions, index terms, thesauri etc.)

Types of search terms

bredere zoektermen omvatten smallere zoektermen

Based on a first search term, you can generate more search terms by filling in the diagram below as far as possible. By word variations is meant single/plural,  nouns/adjectives and verb conjugations, for instance: migration, migrations, migrate, migrating, migrated. And also think of acronyms (e.g. CAD for Computer Aided Design). There are no search engines which search automatically for these word variations. However, many professional systems support truncation on the root of the word shared by all variations, often with the help of an asterisk. So in this case"migrat*

type of term
specialist terms
in the main language of the discipline
translations of specialist terms into other language
terms in the main language of the discipline
translation of popular
terms in other languages
+ word variations
and their spelling variations
broader terms
+ word variations
and their spelling variations
narrower terms
+ word variations
and their spelling variations
related terms
+  word variations
and their spelling variations
+ word variations
and their spelling variations

In addition to English and Dutch other languages may also matter: in the case of some disciplines (Languages of course, but also for Philosophy and Theology) and for some subjects and areas (Latin America, French Africa). For some disciplines (Biology, Medicine) Latin terms are also of importance.

Apart from all these terms related to your main search term you can also think of terms which frame your subject further:

  • such as persons or organisations related to your subject
  • terms which indicate a specification in time, space (periodes, centuries, place names, countries)
  • terms indicating a scientific approach, movement or method.


  • 201309: has improved its thesaurus functionality significantly. It is now even more helpful in finding the right word.

Combining search terms

You can also construct a query by making a string of several search terms  and to indicate with the help of operators what the search engine should do.

For instance, you are looking for information about the reproduction of praying mantis. You could make a string like this:

reproduction AND ("praying mantis" OR cricket*) NOT sport*

The most frequently used operators are:

AND: both terms must occur. Example: Fashion AND The Netherlands

OR: at least one of the terms must occur. Example: fashion OR trend OR hype

NOT:  the term must be exluded. Example: fashion NOT clothes

"... ...": terms must occur in this exact order. Example: "French revolution"

(... ...) In the case of complicated queries you must indicate by brackets how the search engine should manage your search terms.

*: by putting an asterisk behind the 'root' of a word, you search for all possible endings. For instance: govern*  to search in one go for government, governments, governed, governing, governance, govermental, governs. Please note: this is not possible in Google search engines!