Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

First Year Composition - Research Guide

The Search Bar

Every academic database you will use will have a search bar.  Most of us are used to using search bars to find information; however, a few tips might help you find better information more quickly.


Unlike Google, most academic databases don't have advanced natural language processing. A search engine like Google or Siri allows you to ask, "What is the tallest building in Atlanta?" because they have artificial intelligence that processes your question into a query that their databases can read that includes synonyms and interprets question words. Most academic databases can't do that. Instead, they search based just on the words you type in. We call those words keywords.

Your job as a researcher is to determine the best keywords for your search. What words can I use that will return the kind of information I need?

To figure out an initial set of keywords, write out your research question, then underline the main terms of your research. (You may also discover that you need to focus your research question further.)

As you proceed in your research, you might find that what you need to know changes. For example, you might need background information about the implementation of NAFTA or to figure out how people responded to the first U.S. poet laureate.  Again, you would use the main terms in the question as your keywords.

Determining synonyms

Sometimes the words you have chosen will not produce helpful results. Try a synonym.  Perhaps "server" didn't work but "waiter" or "waitress" does; perhaps "prison system" isn't giving you the kinds of articles you are interested in, but "incarceration" will. Some terms, like "city" and "urban" might give you entirely different results, which may expand your pool of information or may make you realized that the research you care about uses one term or the other. Here are some ways to come up with synonyms.

  • Brainstorm. Literally think of synonyms -- What is another way to say people without mothers? While orphans might have been your first thought, you may also come up with "motherless." 
  • Read & borrow. If you have found an article or book that works, see what words they use to talk about the subject.
  • Use a thesaurus. Or talk to a friend. Or a librarian.

Changing Terms

Sometimes changing the level of terms you are searching helps.

  • More specific. Instead of "violence" on college campuses, you might want to narrow your terms to "bullying," "hazing," "assault," "weapons," or "sexual violence." Further if you are interested in students, you may want to add the term "student" to your search.
  • More general. While your paper is about food co-ops in West Philadelphia, your research may be improved by searching more generally like grocers in Philadelphia, cooperative businesses in Philadelphia, or either of these topics in urban areas.
  • More concrete. Instead of "democracy," maybe you are actually interested in a particular practice like "voting."
  • More abstract. Using a term that includes or is an umbrella term for your research topic may also be helpful. While you are interested in "stop-and-frisk," you may find central research under the term "police tactics."


Filters allow you to narrow a search by the subject, the year of publication, or the type of materials (peer-reviewed article, DVD, etc.). Filters are usually on the left side of the results page.