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The Industry Researcher’s Guide to Effective Literature Searching

A guide designed for industry researchers

Process for creating a search strategy

Once you have determined where to search, you need to translate your research question into a useable search.  

  1. Depending on your background knowledge, you might need to explore a topic first with an open, more general search.
  2. Formulate your research question, and identify its key search terms.
  3. Run a "rough draft" search based on those terms.
  4. Use results to refine your search strategy. 
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as many times as necessary. 
  6. Save any relevant results you find as you are revising your search.
  7. Save the final search.  

A good search strategy will include:

You will find general guidance on the principles and techniques behind literature searching below.   Follow these links for specific guidance on how to apply the search techniques to FSTA or IFIS Collections.

Identifying your search concepts

Most databases do not "understand" a search written in natural language which is language that mirrors the way we talk.  Instead, a question needs to be broken down to specific search terms.  Finding your initial search terms is usually fairly easy.  Basically, you just need to identify the main components of your research question and discard connecting words.

What are the mechanical properties of environmentally friendly packaging films manufactured from starch?


However, at the same time you are locating your terms, you need to also consider how specific your question should be.

Too broad a query can overwhelm you with results.  A question framed too narrowly risks missing important information. Sometimes it's appropriate to break your research question into separate parts to see what relevant research has been done on each component.

The search terms you begin with may not really be the best, or sole, terms to effectively capture your concept. 

Using a chart like the one below can help you brainstorm and collect words to include in your search. To populate it, Identify the main concepts in your search.

Use two parallel strategies to populate the other boxes. 

  • Run initial searches with your terms and scan abstracts and thesaurus terms to find relevant words to add to your chart.  (Thesaurus terms may be called subject terms, descriptors, or keywords, depending on the platform you are searching.)
  • Explore a database thesaurus hierarchy for suitable broader and narrower terms.

Note: You don’t need to fill all of the boxes in a search matrix.

Search matrix

Experimental searches will help you refine your final search strategy.   See the revised matrix (after running searches) tab.

This revised matrix shows adjustments made to terms, and how the terms are connected with Boolean operators.  Different forms of the same concept (the columns) are connected with OR, and each of the different concepts are connected with AND.   

Search tools



Boolean operators tell a database or search engine how the terms you type are related to each other.  




Use OR to connect variations representing the same concept. In many search interfaces you will want to put your OR components inside parentheses like this: (safe OR “food safety” OR decontamination OR contamination OR disinfect*). These are now lumped together into a single food safety concept for your search.

Use AND to link different concepts. By typing (safe OR “food safety” OR decontamination OR contamination OR disinfect*) AND (beef OR “cattle carcasses”)—you are directing the database to display results containing both concepts.

NOT eliminates all results containing a specific word.  Use NOT with caution. The term excluded might be used in a way you have not anticipated, and you will not know because you will not see the missing results.

Learn more about using Boolean operators: Research Basics: Using Boolean Operators to Build a Search (

The search in the matrix above would look like this in a database:

(“mechanical propert*” OR “tensile strength”) AND (environment* OR sustainab* OR biodegrad*) AND (pack* OR film*) AND starch* 

Phrase searching, putting two or more words inside quotation marks like “food safety” will ensure that those words appear as a phrase in a single field (i.e. title or abstract or subject heading). Phrase searching can eliminate false hits where the words used separately do not represent the needed concept.

Some databases allow you to use proximity searching to specify that words need to be near each other. For instance, if you type ripening N5 cheese you will get results with a maximum of five words between ripening and cheese.  You would get results containing cheese ripening as well as results containing ripening of semi-hard goat cheese.

Learn how to test if a phrase search or a proximity search is the better choice for your search: Proximity searching, phrase searching, and Boolean AND: 3 techniques to focus your literature search (

Note: Proximity symbols vary from database to database. Some use N plus a number, while others use NEAR, ADJ or W. Always check the database help section to be sure that you are using the right symbols for that database.

Truncating a word mean typing the start of a word, followed by a symbol, usually an asterisk (*).  This symbol tells the database to return the letters you have typed followed either by no letters (if appropriate) or letters.  It is an easy way to capture a concept that might be expressed with a variety of endings.  

Sometimes you need to adjust where you truncate to avoid irrelevant results.  See the difference between results for nutri* or nutrit* 


nutri* nutrit*















and more. 








Inserting wildcard symbols into words covers spelling variations.  In some databases, typing organi?ation would return results with organisation or organization, and flavo#r would bring back results with flavor or flavour.  

Note: While the truncation symbol is often *, it can also be $ or !.   Wildcard symbols also vary from database to database. $ or ? are sometimes used. Always check the database help section to be sure that you are using the right symbols for that database.

In building a search you can combine all the tools available to you.   “Brewer* yeast” uses both phrase searching and truncation and will bring back results for brewer yeastbrewer’s yeast and brewers yeast, three variations found in the literature.

Best practice!

BEST PRACTICE RECOMMENDATION:  Ask a colleague or librarian to review your search strategy. This can be very helpful, especially if you are new to a topic.