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Mathematics: Planning your search strategy

Library support for Mathematics

What is a search strategy?

A search strategy is a set of search terms combined in such a way to maximise the number of relevant records retrieved in Library Search or a bibliographic database:

  • Library Search will search across a number of databases and can be a good way of quickly finding full text articles on a topic; use Advanced Search for finding journal articles. See Library Search (Advanced Search) for search tips.
  • For larger scale literature reviews eg dissertations and theses, it is recommended that you search the databases relevant to your subject area. 

Designing a search strategy is the first step in effectively reviewing the literature in your area of interest. If you don't use the correct terms or don't combine them correctly, you will either not get enough relevant results, or you will be overwhelmed with a large number of irrelevant records.

This page will guide you through the search strategy process, allowing you to create an effective search strategy that you can use to find relevant journal articles for your topic.  

Note that designing an effective search strategy can be time-consuming, so make sure you allow enough time for this part of your research!

Step 1 - Clarify your search topic

It can be useful to write down your search topic as a question or as a search statement. This can help you identify the key concepts of your search. Here is an example question: 

Investigate the relationship between Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Ratio. 

The key concepts in this example are: 

  • Fibonacci numbers 

  • Golden Ratio

Step 2 - Think of synonyms

You can make your search more effective by thinking of similar words which can be used to express the same concepts. For example, the concept Fibonacci numbers can also be expressed as Fibonacci sequence. Be aware that academic literature sometimes uses technical terms, rather than day-to-day language. Also, it can be useful to consider broader or narrower concepts to search for. Here are some example keywords for the question above:    

FIBONACCI NUMBERS                                                               


fibonacci sequence 

golden section OR golden mean OR divine proportion 

Step 3 - Structure your search

The next step of your search strategy is to decide how best to combine your keywords. The most effective way to search databases is to use 'OR', 'AND' and 'NOT' (also referred to as Boolean Logic).  

For example:  

Searching for fibonacci numbers OR fibonacci sequence will find books or articles which include either of these phrases.

Searching for fibonacci sequence AND golden ratio will find books or articles which cover both concepts. 

You can use NOT to exclude terms, but use with caution to avoid missing relevant articles. 

Phrase searching: You can use double quotation marks to search for two or more words together which form a phrase eg "fibonacci sequence"

Truncation: You may be able to use the asterisk (*) as a truncation command to find versions of your search terms with different endings eg "fibonacci number*" will find both Fibonacci number and Fibonacci numbers.   

Brackets (parentheses): Enclosing search terms in brackets means these terms will be combined first eg ("fibonacci number* OR fibonacci sequence) AND ("golden ratio" OR "golden section" OR "golden mean" OR "divine proportion").

Some databases have additional search features such as proximity searching, extra character searching etc. See Database keyword search operators quick guide below for more information.

Step 4 - Review your results

Finally, you should have a look at the results of your search to see if they look useful. If your results don’t look relevant, you may need to go back to step 2 and consider if there are different words which you can use. If you aren't getting enough results, you can search for more general terms or add another keyword with OR. If you are getting too many results, you may want to consider searching for more specific terms or adding another keyword with AND. (The more terms you combine with AND, the fewer results you will get. The more terms you combine with OR, the more results you will get!)

Even if your results look relevant to the search topic, you should have a look if they meet other requirements. For example, the publication date will tell you whether a journal article is up-to-date or obsolete. Also, most databases will offer options to filter your results by other criteria. If available, it can be a good idea to filter your results to include only articles from peer-reviewed journals. This will ensure that general, non-academic sources are excluded.  

If your search results are still not what you were hoping for, don’t give up!  Designing a search strategy is a process and you rarely get it right first time. However, by applying these techniques, you should end up with an effective search strategy that retrieves good quality, academic information on your topic.   

Subject librarian support for literature searching

Subject Librarians are able to show QUB students and staff undertaking any type of literature search (e.g. literature review, scoping review, systematic review) how to:

  • Structure searches using AND/OR
  • Select appropriate databases
  • Search selected databases
  • Save and re-run searches
  • Export database results
  • Store and deduplicate results using EndNote

At peak periods of demand, Subject Librarians might not be able to deliver all of the above. Please contact your Subject Librarian Carol Dunlop at to check availability.

QUB students and staff must provide Subject Librarians with a clear search topic or question, along with a selection of appropriate keywords and synonyms. Students should discuss these with their supervisor before contacting Subject Librarians.

Subject Librarians are unable to do the following for QUB students and staff:

  • Peer review, or approve, search strategies        
  • Create search strategies from scratch
  • Search databases or grey literature sources
  • Deduplicate results
  • Screen results

Books on literature searching skills

The library has many books to guide you through the process of doing literature reviews. Here are just a few that you might find useful; use Library Search to find the full range of titles. 

Print books