Using one little symbol to find more results

Here’s a little search tip with a big name that can help you find more results during your research: Truncation.

You only need two things in order to take advantage of this search method: 1) the knowledge that some terms may be expressed with multiple endings, and 2) your handy friend the asterisk symbol:

asterisk

Original image by cutesmallfuzzy. CC license here. Adapted from original.

The word ‘truncate’ literally means to cut something short. In the case of library research, when you truncate a search term, you chop off its ending and replace it with an asterisk (example below).

But why?! 

Well, most databases recognize that an asterisk means you would like to find all of a word’s possible endings. This is particularly useful when a word may be expressed in different ways while maintaining its general meaning.

Take, for example, a search term like ‘finances’.  You could imagine that some very similar terms would include:

  • financial
  • financially
  • financing
  • financed

But if you do a keyword search for ‘finances’, you will not see the results that use other forms of the word instead.

Truncation is the trick that will allow you to find all of these various endings in one go, reducing the number of searches you have to run, while increasing the number of results you retrieve.

How do you do it?

When you’ve decided you’d like to truncate a term, first identify the place at which variation might start to appear.  Following the example above, all of the words contain the same root: financ.  After the ‘c’, however, we begin to see variance.  Sometimes there is an ‘i’, other times an ‘e’.  This means that we should place our asterisk (i.e. truncate) after the ‘c’, like so:

financ*

That’s all we have to do to let the database know we want to find the various endings.

Let’s take a look at a sample search so you can see how this might affect the results you find.

Sample without truncation

The screenshot below represents a search in which I did not use truncation:

finances1

Click on image to enlarge.

Sample with truncation

Now, here is a screenshot of the same search in the same database, only this time I used truncation (financ*):

finances2

That one small change resulted in about 1,500 additional results.

As I scrolled through the results and read some abstracts I could tell they were still related to my research interests.  Since I truncated my term, in addition to records with ‘finances’, I was also able to find things such as “financial planning”, ‘financing your retirement’, ‘being financially prepared’, etc. which explains the increase in my number of results.

Truncation is a great way to find more results, whether you are not finding as many as you hoped or you just want to make sure you’ve done an exhaustive search for related materials.

While most databases will recognize the ‘*’ as the preferred symbol for truncation, there are always exceptions.  If you are attempting to truncate a term and it does not appear to be working properly, be sure to consult the database’s help guide which will show you what symbol to use.

One final note…

Truncation can be a huge help, but if you try to truncate a word that is too short, it may turn out to be a huge pain.  As you can image, truncating a short term like ‘art’ could yield tens of thousands of irrelevant results (artists; artery; artichoke; artificiality; and on and on…).  Just be vigilant of this when employing this strategy so you do not overwhelm yourself with wild results.

Happy Searching!

One thought on “Using one little symbol to find more results

  1. Pingback: Get close…but not too close… | Fielding Library Services

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