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Research Guides | Library | Amherst College

Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship & Benjamin Mays Library Research Guide

Identify subjects and disciplines

Identify what subject areas or disciplines might relate to the questions you have.

For example, if your research questions relate to smoking cessation, this could intersect with Psychology, Sociology, Medicine, and Public Health.

Identifying your major subject areas will help you target which databases (online collections of articles and other material) and other collections to search.

Our Research Guides by Subject can help you find the most relevant databases for different subject areas.

Identify types of content

You may engage with many different types of content in your research. For example, you might be looking for scholarly articles, statistics, newspaper articles, images, maps, media, conference proceedings, etc.

Each Research Guide has sections on how to find different types of materials. "How Do I?" guides also walk you through how to access specific types of materials, like images, maps and GIS data, and primary sources.

Identify major concepts and brainstorm keywords

Identify the main concepts involved in your research question. You could break these out in a simple list:

  • government policies
  • air pollution
  • United States

For each concept, brainstorm as many different keywords or synonyms as you can to describe that concept:

  • government policies: laws, regulations, programs, public policy, state policy, national policy, etc.
  • air pollution: atmospheric pollution, smog, air pollutants, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, etc.
  • United States: America, U.S., U.S.A., etc.

Brainstorming potential search terms helps make sure you don't miss relevant research because you used different language to describe your topic. As you start searching, update this list in your research journal with any new terms that you discover.

Combine your search terms

Most databases give you the option to combine your search terms in different ways. Use these options to broaden, narrow, and refine your search.

Inverted triangle with yellow arrow inside pointing downNarrowing your search

Screenshot with drop-down option between search boxes set to AND

  • AND: Use AND between search terms to find items containing both (or all) terms. Use AND to combine your main concepts.

example: government policy AND air pollution

  • quotation marks: Use quotation marks around phrases, to search for that entire phrase.

example: "government policy"


Triangle with yellow arrow inside pointing upBroadening your search

Screenshot with drop-down option in search box set to OR

  • OR: Use OR between search terms to find items containing either term. Use OR to add synonyms or related terms.

example: air pollution OR particulate matter OR smog

  • asterisks (*): Use an asterisk at the end of the root of a word to include all variations on that word.

example: politic* (for politics, political, politically, etc.)


Use different combinations of search terms, and search multiple times! Searching is a practice. You'll need to try different searches and adjust based on your results.

Subject Terms

Most databases include Subject Terms as a search feature. Subject Terms allow you to search for items that have been tagged with that subject as a major focus.


Find and search for Subject Terms

You can find Subject Terms listed in the results page after a search. Clicking on a Subject Term will run a search for everything tagged with that term.

Screenshot of article record with subjects listed under article title and authors


Change drop-down search options

You can also use the drop-down next to your search boxes to search for Subject Terms instead of keywords anywhere.

Screenshot of search with drop-down next to search box changed to SU Subject Terms

By adding search boxes and changing the drop-down options, you can have multiple subject terms, or combine subject terms and keywords in your search.


Use the Thesaurus

Subject Terms may not be intuitive. Use the Thesaurus search in the database to find out what different Subject Terms are available for your topic/concept.

Screenshot with Thesaurus link in Advanced Search circled

Screenshot of search for "high school" and subject term results including "high school organization" and "high school role."

Activities & Resources