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Guide for Nanjing Institute of Technology (NJIT) students: Search terms

Finding search terms

Searching for topics requires using words or phrases to identify a specific topic. Any specific topic can be represented by more than one word or phrase.  To find all (or as many) references for a specific topic requires using all (or as many) or the terms that are used to denote that topic. 

After your topic has been analyzed and specified, it is time to describe the topic with search terms. Usually search terms are

  • central concepts of the problem
  • synonyms and foreign equivalents of the concepts
  • parallel, broader and narrower terms.

When looking into the concepts and terminology of your research area, you can use articles, reference books, handbooks, dictionaries, controlled vocabularies etc. They may also include the terms' foreign counterparts. Handbooks and reference books include broad articles that give you a good basic idea of the topic. Not only can you find terminology in articles, but also different expressions and ways of writing the terms.

The following tools will help in most disciplines:

  • In Scopus database you should start your search with the search terms you know. More potential search terms can be found with the tool "Refine results" under "Keywords" (see the picture below). 
  • MOT Dictionaries include dictionaries in different languages and from different disciplines, e.g. technology and business.

Many search engines ignore prepositions, conjunctions and other common "stop words" written in the search phrase, which usually have no relevance to the search results. A list of these words can be found in the database instructions as well as instructions on how to proceed if a stop word has to be included in the search, e.g. in a phrase.

Using search terms


When you have found suitable search terms it is time to combine them into a search string.

The simplest way to do this is to write the words one after the other. By modifying the search string you get a better result.


To modify the search string you can use

  • a symbol for truncation (e.g. employ*)
  • quotation marks for phrases (e.g. "social media")
  • operators (AND, OR, NOT)