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Social Work Research Methods

Boolean Operators

It's helpful to think about database searching in terms of coding. In order to get the output you want, you have to use the right coding language. The main elements of this coding language that you'll want to know are Boolean Operators, phrase searching, and truncations.

Boolean Operators

Throughout this module so far, you will notice that we've been stringing keywords together using OR. 

OR is one of three Boolean Operators that tell the databases how to think about the terms in your search strategy. The Boolean Operators you'll want to focus on are AND and OR. (There is a NOT operator, but I very rarely recommend using it.)

Venn diagram with three circles: child, play, and empathy with the center where all of the circles overlap is highlighted with the word AND

Use AND in a search to:

  • narrow your results
  • AND is how you connect your main concepts, telling the database that you want to be sure ALL of them are included
  • example: children AND play AND empathy

The triangle in the middle of the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search. It is a small set using AND, the combination of all three search words.

Alternative version of the venn diagram where all three circles (play, games, and recreation) are highlighted to show the search with the Boolean operator OR will include everything within all three circlesUse OR in a search to:

  • broaden your results
  • connect keywords within a main concept, telling the database that ANY of your search terms can be present in the resulting records
  • example: play OR games OR recreation

All three circles represent the result set for this search. It is a big set because any of those words are valid using the OR operator.

Venn diagram with OR operators within each circle and the center highlighted with ANDCombining operators

When you're putting your search together, it's important to keep your ANDs and ORs separate. A good rule is to keep your ORs together on a single line and separate lines with AND.


Child OR juvenile OR elementary

AND empathy OR compassion OR social emotional learning

AND games OR play OR recreation


Phrase Searching

To search for exact phrases, enclose them in quotation marks.  If you don't use quotation marks, the system will look for your terms anywhere in a record.

Phrase Example: "social emotional learning"

Keep in mind that phrase searching doesn't always yield the best results. Even though you may think of a topic as a phrase, the author may not. If you searched a phrase and you think that you should have more results, test you search using AND between your search terms instead of phrase searching.


"social emotional learning" Search results 57
(social OR emotional) AND learning Search results 5,268



Truncation allows you to search for a root word and all of its various endings.

Use an * to indicate the search should accept any letters that follow.

example: child*