Research for Technical Report Writing

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to: 

  • Apply proper usage of search operators (e.g. Boolean operators, truncation symbols, parentheses)
  • Select relevant keywords, expressions and terminology to retrieve useful information and resources
  • Understand the need of a search strategy when searching in a library catalogue or database

1. What is a Search Strategy?

A search strategy is an organized structure of key terms used to search a database or a library catalogue. It combines the main concepts of your search question in order to retrieve accurate results. 

Your search strategy will account for:

  • possible search terms, keywords, phrases or expressions
  • truncated or wildcard variations of search terms
  • usage of search operators

2. Determine Keywords

When formulating a search strategy, you want to build a list of keywords you can include in your search. You should have keywords that represent each of the main concepts in your research topic (there are usually three or four concepts). You can begin with the words that you have used to describe your topic in your research question. 

Since the same concept can be expressed in many different ways, we want to come up with synonyms for each of our concepts so that our results capture the most relevant literature no matter how the author chose to describe the topic. These additional terms can be literal synonyms, variations, alternative spellings, or abbreviations of your terms. 

You can locate these synonyms from a wide variety of sources, including; 

  • dictionaries 
  • encyclopedias
  • thesauri
  • web sources (e.g. Google & Wikipedia)
  • other articles 

Your list does not need to be exhaustive, however you want to ensure you include the most commonly used terms. 

3. Combine and Enhance Your Terms with Search Operators

Now that we have determined our keywords, we can further enhance these by using search operators. There are two main types of search operators: Boolean operators and search symbols. 

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators are added between our various terms to help us state the relationship between our synonyms and concepts. There are three Boolean operators; AND, OR, and NOT. 

OR - When we place OR between two terms, we will retrieve results that mention the first term, the second term, or both. Because of this we use OR between our synonyms. We do not need our results to mention every single one of our synonyms but this ensures that at least one of them are present and that that concept is represented.

AND - When we place AND between two terms, we will retrieve results that mention the first term and the second term in the same item. Because of this we use AND between our concepts. This ensures that every one of our concepts are present in our final results. 

NOT is only used in advanced searching and the testing of searches and will not be covered in this guide. 

Search Symbols 

Search symbols allow us to better control how the database will search for each of our individual terms. While there are many search symbols available, they often vary by database or search tool. We will cover three of the most commonly used symbols: quotation marks, truncation and parentheses.

Quotation Marks - Some of your keywords may consist of more than one word. If the proximity between these words in essential for your search, you can place these terms between quotation marks. The use of quotation marks forces the database to search for the words contained within as an exact phrase, or as if they are one single word. 

E.g. "sea level"

* The use of quotation marks can be extremely restrictive in your search. Only use them if it important that your terms appear in your results list exactly as you have searched for them. 

Truncation - It is possible that many of your keywords and synonyms will have the same beginning with various endings. Rather than having to come up with all of the possible word endings and including them all in our search, we can use truncation. If we add a truncation symbol (*) at the end of the root of the word, the database will retrieve results that contain any possible variation of the word ending, including plurals. 

E.g. coast*

*It is not recommended to truncate words that are four letters or less, as it would lead to too many unrelated terms in your results. 

Parentheses - We use parentheses to group our terms together. This allows us to search for all of our concepts together at the same time, by building a complete search string. 

4. Combine All Elements into a Search String

Once you have gone through all of the steps detailed above, we will combine our keywords, synonyms and search operators. This is what is known as a search string. We can place our search string directly into a search tool to retrieve relevant results. 

Formulate a Winning Search Strategy

Finding pertinent information can be tricky.   A sound search strategy will be key for your success.  Remember that it all starts with a research question.

Sample research question:

How effectively have ceramic nanofibers fabricated through electrospinning been used for filtration purposes in industry X?


When formulating a search strategy, you want to build a list of keywords you can include in your search.  Consider synonyms and variations of your terms.  Your listing does not need to be exhaustive, however you want to ensure that you include as many terms you can think of. 


  • ceramic nanofiber:
    • ceramic microfiber
  • filtration:
    • filter


Truncation saves time in that you don't need to type individual variations of your keywords.  Add a truncation symbol at the end of the root of the word.  For example, microfiber would be microfib*.  The database would then retrieve the results whereby the term microfiber or microfibers appear.

Boolean operators

Boolean operators allow you to group your keywords.  These operators allow you to give the database instructions.  If you don't use boolean operators, the database will search for all the terms.


AND: is used to find results that contain all of the listed terms


OR: is used for keywords that are synonymous to find results where either term is present

Search Strategy

Once you have your keywords and have grouped your concepts with boolean operations, you can create your search strategy.

ceramic AND (nanofib* OR microfib*)




filter* OR filtration

View the search results of this search strategy in: