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Searching the Literature for Animal Testing Alternatives: A Tutorial: Step 4 : The Search Query

Tutorial for researching alternatives to animal research

Created by Health Science Librarians

Step 3: Construct the Query

Once you have selected a variety of keywords to use, it is time to build your search query.

  • Remember that not all databases use the same search terms, but most use some form of Boolean searching, and many also use truncation and phrase searching, as described below. Using all three techniques in one search query can produce very precise results.
  • Many databases have help pages so you can learn what their specific features are. If you would like assistance with developing your search query, please request a consultation with an HSL librarian.

Boolean Search Strategies

Boolean Searching: Use the connector terms AND, OR, & NOT to structure your search query.


The IACUC requires you to record and include a sample of your search strategy. If your source will accept Boolean logic, use a sample string. If it does not, use a one-sentence narrative about your search words and processes.

Boolean logic is a code format that tells almost all databases exactly what results you want to find. You can use it to tell the database how to limit or expand your search. The basics :

  • AND - each term must be found in all of your results
    • example : ketamine AND xylazine
    • results : every article includes both ketamine and xylazine
  • OR - either or both terms must be found in all of your results
    • example : rompun OR xylazine OR anased
    • results : every article includes at least one but not necessarily all of the terms searched
  • NOT - the subsequent term will be eliminated from all of your results
    • example : xylazine NOT anased
    • results : every article includes xylazine, but no articles include anased
    • tip : only use NOT at the end of a search string
  • ( ) - use parentheses to build compound search strings
    • example : (rompun OR xylazine OR anased) NOT clonidine
    • results : every article includes either of the terms within parentheses, but none include clonidine
  • " " - use commas to tell the database that the enclosed term must be found in the exact order & form as entered
    • example : "alpha 2 adrenergic agonist"
    • results : every article includes the phrases alpha 2 adrenergic agonist exactly as written; in other words, it would not include any articles that just had the word alpha, or adrenergic agonist, or alpha2 adrenergic agonist
    • tip : this will search EXACTLY for what is included and will not correct for spelling errors or extra spaces or punctuation

Truncation Searching: Many databases will let you search for multiple keywords with the same root by using a truncation symbol such as * or ? at the end of the root.

  • Example: Search in PubMed
    • Metastasis, 250,349 results
    • Metastas*, 314,055 results
      • Metastas* finds both metastasis and metastases
    • Take care – metas* finds over 600 word variations, making its results unlikely to be relevant.

AWIC Database Search Operator Reference Guide

This guide, created by the Animal Welfare Information Center, shows you how to use specific proximity, truncation, and Boolean operators to search Web of Science, Scopus, PubMed, and other popular databases.

Screenshot of the AWIC search tips handout (page 1)

Screenshot of the AWIC search tips handout (page 2)

Query Building Recommendations from AWIC

The Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC) of the USDA provides a number of useful resources for building your query. These hints are drawn from and inspired by them. See the box below for more resources from AWIC and other places to help you design your query.

  • Use several different search combinations - some of your search terms may not belong in one search query
  • Choose terms related to the 3Rs, not just painful aspects of your experiment
  • Do not search for the word "alternative" without modifying it to be specific to your protocol
  • Choose terms specific to your protocol
  • Search for multiple different words related to the 3Rs (reduction, refinement, and replacement!)
  • Search in multiple databases, adjusting your search query as applicable to each database
  • Search a broad range of time - the most recent five years at an absolute minimum


Sources of Additional Help Building a Query

These resources offer guidance on building useful search queries. See the Links & Tutorials page at the left for more resources.