Oxford Digital Reference Shelf

Basic Search Tips

To perform a search, type your terms into the Search or Quick Search box and click Go or press Return on your keyboard.

The search will always look first for all of your search terms in entry headings and, where relevant, entry sections. If no matches are found, then the search engine will look for your search term/s in the full text of the entries.

As well as looking for exact matches to your search terms, the search will look for close matches to those keywords (plurals or past tenses of a verb, for example). Thus a search for suffered, for instance, would find suffer.

If you search for two or more words, the search engine will look for all of your search terms. Thus a search for business ethics will find entries containing both of these search terms (i.e. a Boolean 'AND' search). You can search for an exact phrase by enclosing it in double quotes, e.g. "bury my heart".

Searches are not case-sensitive, so you can enter your search terms in uppercase or lowercase letters.

A very small number of words are not searched for by the Oxford Digital Reference Shelf Search engine because they are extremely common and would generate a huge number of results. These words are referred to as stop words.  Click here for a list.


The Browse tab takes you to an alphabetical index of topics. Find and click on your topic of interest.

Wildcards & Fuzzy Search

There are four wildcard characters which can be used in any Oxford Digital Reference Shelf search and which match a range of characters.

The asterisk (*) matches any number of characters or combination of characters. It also stands for nothing, so haem* will find haem as well as haemoglobin, haemophilia, etc.

Some searches using the * wildcard may yield a very high number of results, for example car*. If this happens you may want to try redoing your search using a more specific search term. See Dealing with large numbers of search results for more information.

The question mark (?) stands for a single character. So a search for act??? might find active, Act411, action and acting pilot officer, but not act or actuarial.

The hash symbol (#) stands for exactly ONE number only. So a search for #ht would find 5HT and 5HT1 agonists.

The @ symbol stands for any single alpha character (letter), so a search for F@ might find FO (Foreign Office) and FA (Football Association), but not F1 (Formula One). As above, remember that each @ symbol equals exactly one character.

You can mix and match wildcards and plain text if you wish:

A search for @@# for instance, would find the British intelligence agencies MI5, MI6 and MI8, as well as WW2 (World War II) and the digital music compression system MP3.

Search Defaults & Widening Searches

There are four levels of search:

  • Level 1: Standard search. All of your search terms in entry headings (and other important elements in an entry e.g. entry sections)
  • Level 2: Standard search. All of your search terms in full text
  • Level 3: Standard search. One or more of your search terms in full text
  • Level 4: Pattern search (i.e. words spelled like your search term). One or more of your search terms in full text

Text immediately above your search results will explain which level the search has reached:

  • For level 1 the text is 'All search terms in entry headings'
  • For level 2 the text is 'All search terms in full text'
  • For level 3 it is 'One or more search terms in full text'
  • For level 4 the text is 'Words spelled like your search term (pattern search)'

If the search finds results at level 1, it will stop and you will see a page of search results. If the search finds no results at level 1, it automatically searches at level 2, if it still finds no results it goes on to levels 3 and 4.

If you misspell your search term (i.e. you do a search for millennium, misspelled as milenium), the search engine finds no results at levels 1-3 and takes you straight to level 4, a Pattern Search.

You can also use the Widen search button on the search results page to expand your search to the next level.

For example, if a search for Marie Curie does not yield many results at level 1 (i.e. hits in entry headings and key parts of an entry only), just click the Widen Search button to find all references to Marie Curie in the full text of the e-resource.

The search engine returns your search results ranked by relevance.