Scope: Do you ever have trouble finding information that seems relevant to your search in the databases? You can use Boolean Operators to narrow or broaden your searches. This guide gives a brief overview of how to use Boolean Operators. Contact a librarian for more information.
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Boolean logic is a system that allows a searcher to communicate to a database specific relationships between keywords (or concepts) when searching. The most commonly used Boolean commands (sometimes called logical operators) are AND, OR, and NOT.
- Web: Boolean logic is used in search engines to retrieve items, although you may not even be aware that it is being used; often it is implied or entered automatically. For example, when searching in Google, if you enter words adjacent to each other, say social media, the interface automatically inserts an AND operator between the words and returns documents or items which contain both of these words, not necessarily adjacent to each other. Because different search engines have different default commands (some default to OR), it is important to understand what they are. This can generally be discovered by consulting the help or search tips menu found in most databases.
When searching Google, "AND" is automatically inserted between your keywords.
- Periodical databases: Periodical databases (access these through Research Port) use Boolean language as well. These, however, do not generally insert a default command between your keywords. Instead, if you enter two words adjacent to each other in a search box, they will interpret them as a phrase and look for exactly those words in that order. So, if you put in social media, the database will search through its records and look for that exact phrase. If it does not find that phrase in any documents, no results will be returned.
Here (Academic Search Premier), there aren't any implied or default commands inserted. This is interpreted as a phrase, so the database will search for "social media".
It's important to know how Boolean commands operate so that you can understand what you are asking for and how to craft an effective search strategy.
To illustrate Boolean searching, let's assume that you have decided to write a research paper on the influence of social media on teenagers’ in-person communication skills. The research question might be formulated as:
How has the influence of social media on today’s teenagers affected their face-to-face communication skills?
- Begin by identifying the main keywords or concepts in your topic: social media and communication.
- Now that you have identified the keywords, you need to communicate to the database what you are looking for. This is done by using the Boolean commands AND, OR, and NOT.
The use of AND
AND is used to tell the database that you want to retrieve documents or items which contain both (or all) of the keywords you specify. It is used to connect unrelated terms or concepts. A search (using the advanced search interface in Academic Search Premier) using AND with these keywords would look like this:
The results from this search would:
- contain both "social media" and "communication".
AND has the effect of narrowing or restricting the number of documents retrieved. If we were to add in another term, such as teenagers, the number of documents retrieved would shrink down to only those which contain all three terms.
The use of OR
OR is used to communicate to the database that you want to retrieve documents which contain one, or the other, or all of the terms that you specify. It is used to connect related or synonymous terms and is a very powerful tool in keyword searching. Its effectiveness lies in the fact that several different terms can be used to express a concept. For example, the concept of "children" can also be expressed using the terms "kids or "youth". In keyword searching, if you don't specifically ask for the synonymous terms, you won't get results which contain them. In relation to our search question, some authors may use the term "communication" while others may use "conversation"; some authors may use "social media" while others use "social networks". (It is at this stage in developing a search strategy that a thesaurus can be very helpful.) OR allows you to ask the database to retrieve all these variants. For example, an OR search in CQ Researcher would look like this:
The results from this search would include:
- all items containing "communication" and "social" and "media"
- all items containing "communication" and "social" and "networks"
- all items containing "communication" and "social" and "media" and "networks"
Note: When you combine AND and OR in the same search, use parentheses around the OR phrase.
OR has the effect of expanding or increasing the number of documents retrieved. The more synonymous terms you add to your search, the greater the number of results you will retrieve.
The use of NOT
NOT is used to communicate to the database that you do not want the items it retrieves to contain certain terms that you specify; that is, it excludes results. For example, you are searching for newspaper articles about your topic but you don't want to retrieve any editorials. Your search would look like this in the Academic Search Premier:
And the results would:
- contain both "social media" and "communication"
- exclude any editorial, even those containing "social media" and "communication"