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Ezra's Research Diary: Tried and True Strategies for Effective Undergraduate Research: Refine Search Results

This library guide is designed to help students understand the overall process of undergraduate research at Cornell.

1,270,000 Results?! More coffee, please...

Chances are, you just entered a search string that returned more items than you could read or review in a week--or more!

Here are a few tips for sorting through retrieved journal articles:

  • Glean the gist of articles from the abstracts
  • Scan the articles to determine relevancy
  • Mine the articles for additional search terms, keywords, etc.
  • Remember the three R's of searching: "Reflect, Revise, and Repeat" your search

Faceted Searching in the Databases

Look for boxes or drop-down menus that allow you to better define your search.

Faceted Searching in Google

A Few Other Tips

  • Boolean Logic:  using the words AND, OR, NOT

AND: use the word AND to retrieve results that contain both terms. Example: hydraulic fracturing AND wastewater (Note: you will retrieve fewer results than when you use OR)

OR: use the word OR to retrieve results that return one search term or the other. Example: hydraulic fracturing OR wastewater (Note: you will retrieve more results than when you use AND)

NOT: use the word NOT to exclude results that contain the search term (hydraulic fracturing NOT wastewater)


  • Truncation: use this tool to pick up variations on a word by searching the word stem and retrieving any word beginning with those letters, including the word itself.

Example: music* finds musical, musician, musicians, musicality, music's (Still not sure how this works? Check out this quick tutorial from Colorado State University.)

  • Pearl Growing: this metaphor refers to the process of doing a simple search first, examining the results, and then extracting more appropriate terms to use in your subsequent searches. (Hint: the list of keywords, synonyms, and subject terms that you assembled in the "snapshot" phase will be handy when you are pearl growing.) You might add a new term to your original search string--or you might replace it altogether. Ultimately, the idea is that you try multiple iterations of your search, each one building on the search before it, until you aren't seeing anything new or compelling in your results. 
For more tips, read Tools Every Searcher Should Know and Use, by Suzanne Bell.

Narrow down by phrase searching

Using quotation marks around your search in many databases and search engines will search for a phrase (sometimes known as nesting):

For example: "hydraulic fracturing" will search for that phrase instead of the words hydraulic and fracturing anywhere in a record

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