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Searching for journal articles

Quicker, smarter, more effective searching.

Key search terms

How do you choose your search words? (Librarians sometimes call them "search terms" or "key terms")

Start with your assignment question. For example:

Discuss the health issues related to the aging population in Australia?

The BUG Technique

One way to start is the BUG technique developed by Dr Geraldine Price, Southampton University
Cowen, M., Maier, Pat, & Price, Geraldine. (2009). Study skills for nursing and healthcare students. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.

Box the action or instruction words - this will change how you will write your assignment; analyse needs a different approach to compare, and discuss is different again. Note: these define how you should write, do not use them as search terms.

Underline the key terms in the topic - these are the areas of the topic you must cover, and this will also be very helpful in defining the search terms you will use.

Glance back to see if there is anything you missed or that will limit or modify your approach. Look for any instructions which are not part of the assignment question itself.

Applying the BUG technique to searching

So, your first approach might take the assignment question and result in


the health issues related to the aging population in Australia?


resulting in a search like this:

"health issues" AND "aging population" AND Australia

Click here for important tips:


  • Firstly, beware of filler words, such as issues - for example, some authors may use health implications; instead.

    I would recommend searching for just the word health instead of "health issues"

  • Secondly, beware of alternative spelling - some authors will use the spelling ageing with an e.
    Watch out for US and UK variations e.g. organization and organisation

  • Thirdly, be aware of alternative terms that authors might use to describe the same concept or similar concepts.
    The search above would not find an article that talks about "the effect of population aging on hospital loads and waiting lists in the Australian context" - this article might not even mention the word health, but might be a very good article to use for the topic. What's more, in many databases searching for Australia will not find Australian.

    Watch out for regional variations e.g. "mobile phones" or "cell phones" (or "cellular phones").
    Keeping with the health theme, different authors might use "bed sores", "pressure ulcers", or "decubitus ulcers" for the same thing.

  • Fourthly, use professional terms where possible when searching for professional or academic articles e.g. instead of statistics AND measles, use the terms used in the health discipline, incidence AND measles.


After considering these tips, you might want to try multiple searches, each of which may get different results, for example:

health AND "aging population" AND Australia

health AND "ageing population" AND Australia

health AND ageing AND population AND Australia

health AND "aging population" AND Australian

hospital AND "aging population" AND Australian

In some of the following steps, we'll look at techniques for making multiple searches into one combined search

To do

Do this with your own assignment

Sit down with a blank sheet of paper, write down your assignment question, underline the key subject terms that might work as search words.

Then, for each keyword or phrase, brainstorm alternative terms and spellings that authors might use when they write journal articles.

Consider what professional terms an author might use in the discipline e.g. rather than statistics of measles you might search for incidence of measles.

sample page showing brainstorming alternative search terms for a topic
Click here for important tips:

At the brainstorming stage, don't worry about putting down words or concepts you don't use in your assignment - it is better to have to too many ideas and select the focus of your writing than to miss some important or useful topic.

If you are struggling for words, try a dictionary for your discipline or topic e.g. The Dictionary Of Sociology.

You might also want to describe the assignment topic in your own words - one recent assignment asked students to analyse why there were more men than women as managers in a certain discipline.
Some students tried alternative terms like male and female rather than men and women and supervisors rather than managers, but one clever student found better results when she used her own topic words and searched on gender AND "managerial roles" rather than direct equivalents for the assignment words.


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