Principles for Better Searches: Grouping

Previously, we explored the principles behind the Boolean Operators (AND, NOT, OR), opens a new window and how to ensure that databases or search engines return results that match your search terms exactly through quotation marks, opens a new window. If you are new to this information, take a look at the other blogs in the series: Principles for Better Searches, opens a new window.The tips and tricks covered there are strong enough on their own, but in this blog we are going to look at how we can combine them to create even better searches. We will call this search principle “Grouping”.

What is Grouping?

Grouping is simply combining multiple principles and keywords together into one powerful search. We can group Boolean operators -- AND, OR, NOT -- and keywords using parentheses. Let’s go through an example:

Let’s say I’m a student doing research on eyewitness testimony. Specifically, I’m looking for resources about the reliability (or unreliability) of children’s eyewitness testimony for a research paper. First, we will have to choose which databases to search. For now, we will use the Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, opens a new window, which is accessible through the St. Tammany Parish Library website. The first search we conduct will be a simple one:

Search #1:

kids eyewitness testimony reliability

Results: 1

It yields 1 result that looks like a great resource. It is on topic and includes a recent review of scholarship on children’s eyewitness testimony. Still as every student knows, we will need to cite a few sources when writing a research paper. As a result, we need to expand the results.

OR is great for this purpose, opens a new window, so we will definitely make use of it here. Let’s take a look out our simple search and decide which of the four keywords can be expanded using the OR search operator.

Kids – We need to ensure that results focus on the eyewitness testimony of kids, so while we must have some way of including that in the search terms, this could be a great area to expand based on similar terms. We’ll add children OR kids OR adolescents to the search.

Eyewitness Testimony – This is a particular term that we want to keep the same for now, because it is the main subject of our search. We will keep "eyewitness testimony" the same without any changes. We will only wrap it in quotes to make sure these terms stick together, opens a new window.

Reliability – Reliability is another term that modifies our key term. As a result, we can look to expand this term with the OR operator to include synonyms. We will add accuracy OR reliability to our search.

In between each of our revised terms, we will use AND to ensure that each group of terms will be reflected in the results.

The end result is a search that looks like this:

Search #2:

“eyewitness testimony” AND (accuracy OR reliability) AND (children OR kids OR adolescents)

Results: 20

This search yields around 20 results, which is a reasonable number to skim through. It contains the 1 article we found earlier and additional articles that we could use in an academic research paper. Still, we can improve the relevance of our results even more, because more than a few articles mention the eyewitness testimony of adults. For the sake of demonstration, let's try to improve the results once more by eliminating specific keywords this time. Using the NOT operator, we can eliminate, opens a new window one or more keywords from showing up in the results. In this instance, removing articles about adult eyewitness testimony will help us find the best information even faster. Our new search will look like this:

Search #3:

“eyewitness testimony” AND (accuracy OR reliability) AND (children OR kids OR adolescents) NOT (adult)

Results: 13


After some fine tuning, each one of the search results appears to be on topic, so all that's left to do is read the abstracts and decide on the best articles from the bunch. In review, our original search returned too few results. Knowing how to modify search terms through grouping allowed us to increase the chances of finding relevant information. Hopefully, this blog demonstrated the effectiveness of grouping search terms, and if you have any questions, be sure to reach out to a reference librarian. We are always happy to help!