Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Database search operators

It is so good to get a refresher on basic knowledge, isn't it?! I attended the Academy of Management virtual conference in 2020, and stumbled upon a session exploring the structure of systematic literature reviews. Although I was not intending the undertaking of a systematic literature review any time soon, I struck a few moments of absolute gold during the hour and a half of the session. These moments have turned into a short series of blog posts, of which this will be the first.

The presenter was Ryan Splenda of Carnegie Mellon University, and the elements he spoke about were search operators (discussed between 1:23:00 and 1:26:00), specifically, those of:

  • Truncations: this is where we use the main part of the word, and then replace the rest with an asterisk. Truncation allows the database to include other, related words. So a search for the trunk, "manag*", will return any entries containing management, managed, managing, manager, manages, and managers.
  • Wildcards: a single question mark stands in place of a particular letter, so searching for "manage?" will return managed, manager, and manages; but not managers. Searching for "manag???" will return managers, and managing, but not management. The asterisk used in the truncations step is also a wildcard, allowing us to look for "all the rest" that the trunk word might contain. If we searched using "*manag*", then we would get "field-management", but not "field management". 
  • Phrase search: this is where we ask for EXACTLY what is within the quote marks. For example, "field management" will return field management, but not field-management. 
  • Proximity search: This is where we look for words that are close to each other. We might look for management field, or field management, or management in the field, or in the field of management, so may use N\4 in our search terms: (Field* N\4 Manag*). If using in ProQuest (ABI/Inform), where Ryan proposes "N4", we would use "N\4", or "Near\4". 
  • Boolean operators: although not specifically mentioned, it is useful to think about these symbols as well. Using a "+" means that search term must be present; using a "-" means we do not want a term to be present. So adding a "-child*" means we will get no mention of children, for example.

A search example might look like this:

"Process"+(field* n\4 manag*), -child

These are very useful operators!


  • Reference: Petricevic, O., Rousseau, D., Verbeke, A., Premji, Z., Splenda, R., Doh, J., Mahoney, J. (2020). What Is 'Systematic' About Systematic Literature Reviews? (session 527) [video]. AOM 2020: Broadening our Sight [Virtual Conference], 7-11 August 2020.

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