First-Year Writing

Guide Contents

How to Approach Research

There are may ways to approach research. Here are just a few suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Be flexible
  • Think about who might create information on your topic
  • Brainstorm synonyms (you describe your topic one way, but someone with a different perspective might describe it differently)
  • Use the advanced search
  • Use boolean operators
  • Keep track of your results (citation management tools like Zotero can help with this)
  • Consider information skeptically, but keep an open mind

Searching as Exploration

Research is an inherently exploratory process. To learn more about the searching mindset and strategies for exploration, see our "Searching as Exploration" tutorial. To access this content, you will need to log in with your BU login.

Boolean Operators


  • Useful for narrowing your results (because all search terms must be present in the resulting records).
  • Ex: bridges AND history AND civil engineering (the black triangle in the middle of the Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
  • Note: Most search engines and databases will assume your search terms are connected with AND.


  • Useful for broadening your results (because search results may contain either or both search terms).
  • Ex: university OR college OR higher education (the entire Venn diagram below represents the result set for this search).
  • Note: OR is especially useful if your search terms have synonyms.


  • Excludes results with whichever search term follows it.
  • Ex: mercury NOT planet (the dark green section in the Venn diagram represents the result set for this search).
  • Note: The order of your search terms matters when using NOT (results with the second search term will be excluded).



Tips and Tricks for Effective Searches


  • Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases
  • This works in almost every database and search engine, including Google.


  • Truncation is represented by an asterisk (*)
  • Enter the root of a search term and replace the ending with an *
  • Ex: comput* finds results with computer, computing, computation, computational, etc.
  • Truncation can also be used between words (ex: a midsummer * dream will return results that contain the exact phrase, “a midsummer night’s dream”)


  • A wildcard is represented by a question mark (?) or a pound sign (#)
  • Using ? as a wildcard will only return results in which the wildcard is replaced by another character (ex: ne?t will find results containing neat, nest or next, but it will not find results with net)
  • Using # as a wildcard will return results with or without an extra character (ex: ne#t will find results containing neat, nest, or next as well as results containing net)


  • Proximity searches look for search terms that occur within a specified number of words (or fewer) of each other.
  • Proximity operators are composed of a letter (N or W) and a number (to specify the number of words). The proximity operator is placed between the words that are to be searched
  • Near Operator (N) – N5 finds the words if they are within five words of one another regardless of the order in which they appear.
  • Within Operator (W) – W8 finds the words if they are within eight words of one another and in the order in which you entered them. Ex: the results for tax W8 reform would include “tax reform” but would not include “reform of income tax”.