Skip to Main Content


This subject guide offers resources on both human and physical geography.

Start with your research question and its concepts

1. Before you conduct literature searches, you need to have a workable research question.

Sample research question:

How is climate change affecting Canada's indigenous populations?

2. Identify the main concepts covered in your question.

For my sample question, I identified "climate change", "Canada", and "indigenous populations".

3. Find synonyms and related terms for each of the concepts. 

You can brainstorm, conduct Internet searching, and use the Library's dictionaries and encyclopedias to find these terms. Depending on your topic, some of the books in the Sources on background information section may help.

Note that for a geographic term, you may need to include terms that cover or overlap with the region in your topic but not exactly the same area. 

Here is a video that elaborates on this process:

Use Boolean operators to combine search terms

Most databases use Boolean operators to combine search terms.

AND generates results that contain all the terms and is used to narrow results.

For example, "climate change" AND Canada AND indigenous

The search results will contain all three terms.

OR generates results that contain either of the three terms and is used to broaden results.

For example, indigenous OR native OR aboriginal

The search results will contain either of the three terms.

NOT generates results that do not contain the term right after NOT and is used to exclude a term that you do not want in the search results.

For example, aboriginal NOT "British Columbia"

The search results will exclude records that contain "British Columbia"

  • Note that you can use multiple Boolean operators to compose a search.

Here is the video that elaborates on how to combine search terms with Boolean operators:

Advanced search techniques

A database is often operated based on its own syntax. It's highly recommended that you consult the database's manual if you are working on a project that requires a high level of search precision and comprehensiveness. The universally used techniques are as follows:

Truncation, * , is used to create variations from a word stem of the same meaning.

For example, Canad* generates Canada, Canadian, and Canadians.

  • Note that it's not encouraged to use a truncation symbol after a short stem as it may create words with an unwanted meaning. For example, green*  generates greenery, greenhouse, greenbelt, greengrocer, etc.
  • Check the database manual, as some databases may use additional symbols for a specific use. For example, IEEE Xplore uses ? for a single character.

Phrase searching, "  ", is used to search for results with the exact phrase. 

For example, "climate change" generates results containing the exact phrase.

Parentheses, (  ), is used to control the order in which Boolean operators in a search are processed.

Boolean operators inside a pair of parentheses are processed first and then combined with the Boolean operators outside the parentheses.

Here is the video that elaborates on these techniques:


Profile Photo
Schulich Librarians
Schulich Library of Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, and Engineering

McGill LibraryQuestions? Ask us!
Privacy notice