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U-M Debate Institutes

For participants in the U-M Debate Institute, this guide provides quick access to librarian-recommended books, journals, and databases.

Introduction to Academic Searching

Academic searching is a different skill than casual online searching. Rather than searching a single idea or phrase, academic searching requires you to use special Boolean logic arguments (or operators) to string search terms together.  You may be familiar with the term Boolean logic from geometry class -- but the same logic also applies to academic searching.

Below are some basic rules and terms for academic searching, as well as a research guide and video to help illustrate them.

What are Boolean Operators?

Boolean operators in the searching context include the set of words AND, OR, and NOT. These words are used to either include or exclude search terms or phrases from a search. These Boolean operators must always be capitalized for the search engine to recognize them.

AND is used to specify that two or more terms must be in the results shown. For example, searching

  • US AND "universal basic income"

will search for results with both the abbreviation US and the phrase "universal basic income" either in the title or in the body of the result. You can think of this search process as less like a Google search and more like searching a very long document by using Ctrl + F or Cmd + F to find a particular search match

Why the quotation marks? These signal that the words "universal basic income" is a phrase with words that belong together, which means the search engine (or database) will count the phrase as one single search term instead of parsing the search as US AND universal AND basic AND income. In some cases, the search results are the same. But in other cases, the search results can be very different. For example, try comparing these two searches in Library Search

  • reality AND show
  • "reality show"

How do the results change?


OR is used to specify that you are looking for results with either of the search terms you are looking for. For example, searching

  • "universal basic income" OR "fiscal redistribution"

will search for results with either phrase in the title or in the body of the result.


NOT is used to specify that you are looking for results without a specific term. For example, searching

  • "fiscal redistribution" NOT "European Union"

will search for results about fiscal redistribution without the phrase European Union in the title or body of the result. A word of caution about using the NOT operator: remember that you are searching for keywords, and not searching for a subject or topic. Therefore even if an article happens to mention the phrase "European Union'' just once, but is actually a wonderful article about fiscal redistribution efforts in the United States, that article result will be filtered out and you will not know it exists. Use NOT sparingly to not miss important information.

Special Characters

When actually searching, it is rare to search one word at a time, even if they are separated by Boolean operators. You will much more likely be searching for something like

  • US AND ("universal basic income" OR "fiscal redistribution") AND incentives

Let's break this search down. The first part is self-explanatory: you are searching for the keyword US. The second part means that you are searching for the phrase universal basic income OR the phrase fiscal redistribution. Maybe you are interested in both terms, or maybe you are treating these terms as synonyms and trying to cast a wider search to return more results. The last part adds that you are also searching for articles that mention incentives as well as US and as well as either universal basic income or fiscal redistribution -- it doesn't matter which of these last two phrases are used.

Why the parentheses? Because much like in your geometry class, Boolean logic operators also have an order of operations. Read more about the order of operations below.

Order of Operations

  • Similar to the order of operations in Mathematics, the order of operations matters in searching. However, instead of memorizing mnemonics like PEMDAS, you simply have to remember to use parentheses. In the previous search,

    • US AND ("universal basic income" OR "fiscal redistribution") AND incentives

  • The parentheses indicate that the AND operator is looking for results that include the phrases universal basic income or fiscal redistribution. If you did not include parentheses, the search would be read from left to right and the search engine would interpret the search as two consecutive searches:

    • US AND "universal basic income"
      "fiscal redistribution" AND incentives

  • In plain English, the search engine would think you were asking it to return search results that either had the union of the terms US and universal basic income, or search results that had the union of the terms fiscal redistribution and incentives. This would produce strikingly different results than the results you asked for above.