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General chemistry and biochemistry subject guide.

Developing a Research Question

Develop your research question 

You should form a research question before you begin researching. Reframing your research topic into a defined and searchable question will make your literature search more specific and your results more relevant. 

Decide the topic of your search

You should start by deciding the topic of your search. This means identifying the broad topic, refining it to establish which particular aspect of the topic interests you, and reframing that topic as a question. As you search, you might need to make small revisions to your specific research question. This is a normal part of the research process!

Broad topic Main focused topicTopic stated as a question ResearchRevise research question as needed

Identify the main concepts in your question

Once you have a searchable question, identify the major concepts. It may be useful to create a concept map. First identify the major concepts within your question and then appropriate minor concepts. Listing major and minor concepts will help you to generate good keywords for your research question.

Search Strategy Techniques

What is a search strategy?

A search strategy is an organized search of the literature using the major concepts and keywords related to your topic. Each database works differently so you need to adapt your search strategy for each database. It is a good idea to test your strategies and refine them after you have reviewed the search results.

Choose keywords

Major and minor concepts can be expressed in different ways. For example, “____” is also known as “____.” Your aim is to consider each of your concepts and come up with a list of the different ways they could be expressed. These are the keywords that you will use in your database searches.

To find additional keywords or phrases for your concepts try the following:

  • Use a thesaurus or dictionary to identify synonyms.
  • Examine relevant abstracts or articles for additional words, phrases, and subject headings

As you search, scan articles, and read abstracts, you may discover different key terms to enhance your search strategy. Keep a running list of the words and short phrases that align with your research question. 

Search for exact phrases

To search for an exact phrase, meaning that the words appear next to one another, you must wrap the phrase in quotation marks: e.g., “climate change.” Phrase searching decreases the number of results because your terms are more specific, which will make your results more relevant.

Use Boolean logic to combine keywords

Boolean operators (AND, OR and NOT) allow you to try different combinations of search terms or subject headings.

The three Boolean operators are:

  • AND - used to find articles that mention both of the searched topics.
  • OR - used to find articles that mention either of the topics you search for.
  • NOT - excludes a search term or concept. It should be used with caution as you may inadvertently exclude relevant references.

When using Boolean operators in a single search bar, you will need to wrap your OR keywords in a set of parentheses ( ). If using an advanced search feature with numerous search bars, you can omit the parenthesis because each bar serves as a bracket for those terms. Example:

(“climate change” OR “global warming”) AND (glaciers OR “sea level*”)


Truncation searches

You can use truncated searches to find variations of your search term. Truncation is useful for finding singular and plural forms of words and variant endings. Many databases use an asterisk (*) as their truncation symbol. Check the database help section if you are not sure which symbol to use. For example, “therap*” will find therapy, therapies, therapist or therapists… 

Ways to restrict and widen your search

If your search only finds a few references, or most of the references are irrelevant to your research topic, consider the following:

  • Check spelling: databases will not usually auto-correct, so they only find what you type.
  • Broaden your search.
  • Do you need to search more databases?
  • Could you add more search terms? Look for variations in spelling and alternative words. 

If you have too many results, you may have to focus your search and make it more specific. Ask yourself:

  • Have you used Boolean operators correctly?
  • Could you limit it by date range?
  • What other, more specific keywords should I use?

Use search limiters

Each database offers a different range of limiters. Many databases allow you to limit your searches by publication year, language, and publication type. Apply limits one at a time so you can see what effect they have on your results.

Additional Resources & Citations

Every database employees its own controlled vocabulary, search syntax, and/ or artificial intelligence aided searches. When using a new database, ding the database's Help feature, which will provide information on how to optimize searches within the database. For example, the following Help guides are for several popular databases:


A full text handout of this search strategies page is available: 

This guide was adapted from the following sources: 

1. Adapted from The University of Leeds. (2021). Literature searching explained

2.  Adapted from content created by Alyssa Young