Journal of Southern Academic and Special Librarianship (1999)

ISSN: 1525-321X

INSPEC on FirstSearch:
An Evaluation and Tutorial for Effective Searching

Lutishoor Salisbury
David W. Mullins Library
University of Arkansas at Fayetteville

Usha Gupta
David W. Mullins Library
University of Arkansas at Fayetteville


This paper focuses on providing critical evaluation and searching tips for users of the INSPEC database on FirstSearch on the Web. It introduces the idea of records and fields, fields searching to focus a search for effective retrieval, and the use of the Related Headings feature. Also explained is the idea of precision searching using the proximity operators and bound-phrase searching capabilities. Other ways to search for specific types of information (for example, foreign names, reviews, theses and dissertations, and chemical searching) are also presented. We provide practical examples to illustrate the search features using the Basic, Advanced, and Command searching modes.


INSPEC is a bibliographic database containing worldwide coverage of physics, electrical and electronic engineering, computer and control engineering, and information technology from 1969 to the present. The Institute of Electrical Engineers produces the INSPEC databases. It provides bibliographic citations to serial articles, conference papers, monographs, reports, theses and dissertations, patents (covered from 1969 through 1976). It contains more than five million records and is updated weekly and is available via several vendors, namely, Dialog, STN, Silver Platter (CD-ROM and on the Internet), and FirstSearch.

This study focuses on providing critical evaluation and searching tips for users of the INSPEC database on FirstSearch on the Web. However, the command searching feature is also applicable when using this database through telnet to FirstSearch. It will introduce the user to the idea of records and fields, field searching techniques and the use of the “ Related Headings” feature to focus a search. The concept of precision searching using the proximity operators and the exact phrase searching capabilities are also introduced. Other ways to search for specific types of information such as foreign names, reviews, theses and dissertations, and chemical searching are presented as well. Practical examples are provided to illustrate the search features using the Basic, Advanced and Command searching modes. It does not attempt to compare the retrieval systems of the INSPEC database through other vendors.

Why INSPEC on FirstSearch

FirstSearch provides access through both a telnet and the World Wide Web interface through IP recognition, with full end-user searching capabilities. The serials in INSPEC are conveniently tagged to the holdings of OCLC participating libraries. This feature allows the user to see whether the library has the referenced item in its collection. In addition, through the online order function patrons can also send their orders directly to the interlibrary loan office without having to rewrite the references. Patrons can also e-mail references to themselves, colleagues or professors at no further charge.

Searching Tips and Tricks

FirstSearch claims that its search engine is geared to offer novice-level access for the public. Although FirstSearch databases are structured for end-users and provide retrieval without a huge investment in learning, sometimes the lack of precision in retrieval can easily frustrate patrons. It is our experience that there is a need to introduce users to methods of searching the system effectively to retrieve the kinds of information not obviously retrievable from the menu screens. With FirstSearch on the Web, users need to understand the difference between the Basic, Advanced and Command searching modes to be able to recognize, without frustration, which one is appropriate for their particular query. It is also our experience that patrons need to understand the underlying structure of any database for efficient searching and effective retrieval.

Search Operators

FirstSearch allows only two ors in one search statement and as many ands as is desired. It allows use of and not to exclude records containing a particular term.

Proximity Operators

The FirstSearch system uses (n)ear and (w)ith as proximity operators. Proximity operators n and w add precision to searching by requiring that words appear within the same field, and even more specifically, words can be restricted to the same occurrence of that field. If n is used, the search terms can appear in any order within the range specified, e.g., teaching n5 aids. If w is used, the search terms must appear in the order in which the words are specified, e.g., teaching w aids. Proximity operators may be used for searching in the keyword indexes in the Basic and Advanced and in command searching to add precision to the items retrieved. The truncation symbol used is +. It retrieves simple plurals and possessives only; it is not a true truncation.

Using Browse lndex Feature

It is always advisable to use the Browse lndex feature to search by an exact phrase. In the INSPEC database, exact phrase indexes are available for the following fields: authors, corporate source subject descriptors, identifiers, journal name, classification, language and treatment codes. These Exact Phrase indexes also identify the number of records appearing for each query in the database and show variations of spellings and names.

Command Searching and Labels Identification

Command searching is available in both World Wide Web and Telnet versions, however, it is especially useful for users who are accustomed to searching FirstSearch through telnet. This method of searching is also effective for combining a search across several fields within one search statement in the Web version. For example:

ti:,de:,id:,ct:(gallium arsenide and semiconductor+) and tc=experimental and au:(schaper or salamo or helgeson).

This command search with 6 ors, circumvents the shortcoming of being able to use only two ors in one search statement. If this search were done in the Basic or Advanced searching mode, it would require four separate searches in the Basic Index and three searches in the Advanced Search respectively, to achieve the same results. Because the above search is done in one search statement, it eliminates the possibility of duplicate records.

In order to execute a command search, one must be able to identify the field labels to be used. To do so, choose Help from the menu once you have selected the INSPEC database. On the next screen, choose INSPEC Database Help Topics. A list of these labels is attached as Appendix 1. A command search is entered from the Word, Phrase Box in the Basic Search or the Advanced Search. Each command search must be preceded by a field name, e.g., au: or au= for authors, cc: or cc= for classifications codes, etc. The field name followed by a colon searches the keyword index, while the field name followed by an = sign searches the Exact Phrase index. When such a command search is entered, the system ignores the field selection in either the keyword indexes or the specified index in the Advanced Search and uses the index(es) specified by the label(s).

Author Searches

There are several ways to do author searches in the INSPEC database:

(a) Author Searching Using the Basic Index ( i.e., Word, Phrase and Keyword Index ) Type anderson rj in the Word, Phrase box and choose Author from the Keyword Index.

This search retrieves references written by anderson rj, and, irrelevant citations since the initials and last name may be retrieved from multiple authors' names in the same record, e.g., anderson, p. and smith, rj. To avoid retrieving irrelevant citations, use the Browse Index feature and author (Exact phrase) for author searching. The author (Exact phrase) would also let you see variations of the author's name.

(b) Author Searching Using Advanced Search Features and Browse Index

To avoid the frustrations of retrieving irrelevant citations, use the Advanced Search feature. Type salamo gj and select author (Exact phrase) from the pull down menu. This search will retrieve articles by the author, salamo gj when salamo appears next to gj in the author's field, but it will not let you select all variations of the author's name to search simultaneously. For comprehensive retrieval, scroll up and down to browse for variations of the author's name.

Below is an example of an author search using the Browse Index feature and Author (Exact phrase):

Browse Author Index for salamo gj Browse Author Index for Salamo GJ (Click on Exact Phrase to replace your word or phrase on the Search screen)


6salamitou p 
35salamo g[Prevpage]
87salamo gj (closest match) 
19salamo s 
4salamoff s 

From this screen, one can click on any one variation of the author's name to retrieve his or her list of publications. Note that the above example shows two different name variations for this author. One must repeat the whole process again to get to this screen to retrieve the next set of records. There is no way to combine searches selected directly from this index using the Boolean or operator. Therefore, only one set can be retrieved at a time.

( c) Author Searching Using Proximity Operators

To overcome the deficiency in the above example, use the Browse Index feature to identify variations of authors' names; then conduct a command search using Boolean or and proximity operator (w) to retrieve all the records in one comprehensive search statement. For example, search the Basic Index for salamo w g or salamo w gj and choose Author from the Keyword Index. Alternatively, use a command search as au:(salamo w g or salamo w gj) to obtain the same results.

(d) Author Searching for Asian Author Names

Because it may be difficult to differentiate between the first and last name for Asian authors, it is best to enter these names in in different ways. In fact, it is INSPEC's policy to take the oriental names as they appear in the document without abbreviations or punctuation, e.g., ho chung or chung ho. For example, the author's name min xiao appears in this database as: min xiao (47 records), xiao m (28 records), xiao min (6 records), and min x (4 records).

It is impossible to use the Browse Index feature to identify variations like these. One comes upon these variations only by serendipity, through comprehensive subject searching, or through a corporate source search. In order to identify the variations, search for min n1 xiao or xiao w m or min w x in the Word, Phrase box and choose “author” from the Keyword Index pull down menu or, conduct a command search as follows:

au:(min n1 xiao or xiao w m or min w x) - Both methods of searching retrieved 89 records.

(e) Searching for Authors as Subject

Patrons often require information on authors. Authors as subjects are indexed in the Descriptor and Identifier fields. The Browse Index feature can be effectively used to retrieve relevant references. There are two ways, for example, to retrieve maximum records for a subject search on Albert Einstein: These are as follows:

(1) Search for albert einstein in the Word, Phrase box and choose subject keyword as the index to search. The fields indexed in the subject keyword index and the default index are the same. They consist of the title, descriptors, identifiers and abstract from each record. This is the broadest search; its retrieves 66 records.

(2) Restrict the search to the Descriptor and Identifier fields only

In this case, a command search as follows retrieves very relevant information:

id:, de:(albert Einstein) - retrieved 30 very relevant records in one search statement. (f) Using an Author Search to zero in on Subject Retrieval

FirstSearch uses the “Related Headings” feature, which identifies how often a subject heading appears in the first fifty records in a retrieved set. This is a useful feature for many reasons. It can be used from a retrieved set resulting from an author search to identify the research areas in which an author is actively engaged. It can also be used to identify a change in focus of an author's research over a period. In addition, it can be used in competitive intelligence using the Corporate Source index as the starting point for this research.

A search for papers written after 1995 by Professor Salamo, gj is done as follows in the basic index:

au=salamo w gj The limit command is used to restrict this search to 1995-. This search retrieved 48 references.

The “ Related Subjects” feature can then be used to identify in what per cent of the retrieved records a certain subject heading appeared. These are listed with those appearing more frequently at the top of the list. An example is shown in Fig. 1 below:

Figure 1

[Database=Inspec| Search=(au=(salamo gj or salamo g) and yr:1995- | Results = 48 records]

(1) Select up to three subject headings of interest (2) If you wish to limit your current search, click the “limit Current Search” checkbox to select this option. (3) Click the Start Search Button.

Limit Current Search with Selected Subject Headings

 Select up to 3PercentSubject Headings in the Current Search Results
1 41barium compounds
2 33photorefractive materials
3 31high-temperature superconductors
4 29optical solutions
5 27critical current density superconductivity
6 27superconducting transition temperature
7 22pulsed laser deposition
8 20superconducting thin film
9 20yttrium compounds
10 16x-ray defraction
11 14photorefractive effect
12 14strontium compounds
13 13holographic interferometry
14 12nonlinear optics
15 12superconducting superlattices
16 10III-V semiconductors
17 10electrical resistivity
18 10indium compounds
19 10iron

Show remaining subjects

Similarly, one can conduct an author search for Professor Salamo and restrict it to the years 1990-1995 and see a pattern of research developing or a switch in research areas based on the subject headings in the documents. The results of such a search are shown in Fig. 2 below:

Figure 2

[Database=Inspec| Search=(au=(salamo gj or salamo g) and yr:1989-1994 | Results = 42 records]

(1) Select up to three subject headings of interest (2) If you wish to limit your current search, click the “limit Current Search” checkbox to select this option. (3) Click the Start Search Button.

Limit Current Search with Selected Subject Heading

  Select up to 3 Percent Subject Headings in the Current Search results
1   47 photorefractive effect
2   42 barium compounds
3   35 photorefractive materials
4   30 strontium compounds
5   26 optical phase conjugation
6   19 ferroelectric materials
7   16 high-temperature superconductors
8   16 superconducting thin films
9   14 calcium compounds
10   14 thallium compounds
11   11 electro-optical effects
12   11 optical solitons
13   11 superconducting transition temperature
14   9 annealing
15   9 critical current density superconductivity
16   9 diffraction gratings
17   9 holographic gratings
18   9 laser beams
19   9 light polarisation

Show remaining objects

A quick glance at Figs 1 and 2 above shows that Professor Salamo is doing research primarily on the photorefractive effect of barium compounds. During 1989-1994, he was also concerned with strontium, calcium and thallium compounds, while during the last five years, his emphasis seemed to have switched to yttrium, strontium, and indium compounds.

Similarly, one can conduct a search for one's competitors and see the shift in emphasis on their research. For example, suppose IBM wants to keep track of research being done at Gateway. Searching in the Corporate Source field and limiting the search to the last year would yield the number of articles published by staff at Gateway in that year. Executing a Related Heading search on this query would identify what areas are being researched. A typical search would be one for cs:gateway in the Word, Phrase Index and limit to year 1997-. The “Related Headings” feature would present a list of ranked subject headings appearing in the first fifty documents retrieved.

Subject Searching

(a) Searching using the Basic Index (i.e., Word, Phrase and Keyword Indexes)

The subject or default Keyword Index searches the titles, descriptors, identifiers, and abstracts fields. In a Command search, the su: label is required to search all these fields in one search statement. If a user wishes to conduct a broad search on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging techniques for the lung, the following search would retrieve relevant information from the Basic Index using the keyword subject or default index:

( nmr or nuclear magnetic resonance ) and imaging and lung+ (Retrieved 101 records)

To attain specificity, the user may wish to restrict his search so that the search words appear only in the title field, or in descriptor and identifier fields only.

A Title Keyword search for ( nmr or nuclear magnetic resonance ) and imaging and lung+ retrieved 4 records. All are directly relevant, but this is not a comprehensive search. To conduct a comprehensive search one would need to search in the Word, Phrase box using Descriptor and Identifier Keyword Indexes. This would require two separate searches because fields cannot be combined in the Basic Index. Moreover, duplicate records may be retrieved. Using a single search statement in the Advanced Search would be more appropriate.

(b) Searching using Advanced Search

The Advanced Search feature is used to conduct searches that combine fields and indexes in searching. It also allows one to browse the Exact phrase Index for authors, classification codes, descriptors, identifiers, language, source and treatment codes. Because FirstSearch allows only two ors in a search to be executed, however, the above search would have to be executed in three separate searches. This is time consuming and provides duplicate records in retrieval. The use of Command searching in FirstSearch Web bypasses this weakness in the Basic and Advanced search modes.

(c ) Searching using Command Search

In order to retrieve information on nuclear magnetic resonance imaging techniques for the lungs in a single search statement, restricting the search to the title, identifier and descriptor fields, execute the following Command search:

ti:,de:,id:((nmr or nuclear w magnetic w resonance) and lung+ and imaging)

This search statement bypasses the indexes and searches the title, descriptor and identifier fields in one search statement and retrieves 82 records without duplicates.

(d) Searching using Controlled Vocabulary, i.e., Descriptors and Identifiers

Using control vocabulary in searching for maximum and specific retrieval is sometimes beneficial. Descriptors and identifiers are usually added to a record to describe its primary subject matter, although a particular document may not contain the words. Descriptors therefore guarantee relevancy of retrieved information. Because FirstSearch is available from remote locations with no online thesaurus available, patrons must consult the INSPEC thesaurus that is located in the library to prepare a comprehensive search. Use of descriptor terms is also the only way to make sure that British and American terms for the same idea are covered. If patrons do not know which controlled vocabulary to use, conducting a free text search to retrieve a few relevant articles is advisable. The Web version of FirstSearch now offers hot links from the descriptor and author fields. Clicking on the descriptor will execute a search in the database for records containing that descriptor and the system will provide a list of references with that descriptor in its record. This feature, while useful in some instances for high recall, does not allow for specificity in retrieval. Ideally, this hot-linked feature should lead the user to browse a list of subject headings from which to select relevant ones, but in this case the user may be provided with several hundred records and must browse these records to identify useful ones and to note the descriptors or identifiers used in each. The user will then use these descriptors and/or identifiers to search in the keyword indexes, advanced search or command search as described above.

(e) Searching Using Related Headings

The “Related Headings” feature allows the selection of subject headings (descriptors) from previous search results to focus a subject search further. One is allowed to choose three of the subject headings (descriptors) displayed for further searching at any one time. This is in keeping with the limit of executing only 2 ors in a search statement. This searching feature has much more usefulness than the hot-linked Subject Headings feature in individual records because it allows the combination of terms for focusing to achieve precise retrieval. It also displays a listing of terms with a count of the percentage of the records in which a certain subject heading appears. It is a very useful way to zero in on appropriate descriptors used in a set of references and in the database.

(f) Searching for Reviews of the Literature, Illustrations etc.

A patron wishes to find literature reviews for all works on protocols for wireless networks. Literature reviews are indexed in the descriptor field term reviews, and the classification code field as : A10130R (reviews and tutorial papers; and resource letters), and the term review appears in the Identifier field. Illustrations are indexed in the identifier field under the term illustrations. In INSPEC, the Basic search using the Word, Phrase box and keyword subject searching indexes the descriptor, identifier, abstract, and title fields. For this query therefore the two simple searches below would provide comprehensive retrieval:

review+ and (radio or wireless) and network+ and protocol+ (Retrieved 35 records)

Restricting the above search to the identifier and descriptor fields only , the user could conduct a search using command searching in one search as follows. This is a narrower search yielding more specific results.

de:,id:(review+ and protocol+ and (radio or wireless) and network+) (Retrieved 4 records)

Illustrations are indexed in the identifier field. A search for id:(illustration+ and 3d) will retrieve references to records that contain three dimensional illustrations.

Using Classification Codes in searching

A patron who wishes to review the literature to find a suitable dissertation topic relating to radiation dosimetry is advised to search the classification code field to retrieve all references within that broad category and to browse these to get an idea of the research being done in this area. Because the classification codes and keywords are searchable, the patron could browse the Classification code exact phrase index by radiation dosimetry. In this case, the user can browse neighboring classifications and get an indication of the number of records in the database within each classification. The patron may display a record and identify the Classification Code and neighboring codes with their descriptions. It is possible to select only one of these entries at a time for browsing. Therefore, a patron may want to make a note of relevant headings or classification codes and conduct a Command search as follows for comprehensive retrieval:

cc=(radiation dosimetry or (radiation protection and dosimetry))

This search retrieved 16714 records. Records can be limited by year, language and type of publication with the Limit Search feature from top of the screen.

A more restrictive search would be to limit the search for radiation dosimetry to the descriptor and identifier fields.

Search for de:,id:(radiation dosimetry) in the Phrase, Word box. (Retrieved 11277 records).

Searching for Chemicals

All chemicals, element or physical properties are indexed in the identifier field. Chemicals are indexed by means of chemical formulae, so that for comprehensive retrieval, one must use a strategy containing the formula and also the name of the chemical. Using proximity operators in searching for precise retrieval is also advisable. For example, a search for carbon w dioxide in the Identifier Field retrieved 581 records, while a search using the chemical formula , i.e., co w sub w 2 in this field retrieved 30223 records. For a comprehensive search combine both the formula and chemical name in one search as:

carbon w dioxide or co w sub w 2 (Retrieved 30530 records).

Limiting a Search

There are three limit fields in INSPEC on FirstSearch: years, publication types, and language. Only two publication types are searchable when using the Limit command: articles and non-articles. Even though dissertations and reports are displayed as record type in the record, they are not searchable except by using the classification codes. For example, conference proceedings, monographs, handbooks, dictionaries, reports, theses and dissertations, one must search using the classification codes: a0130c (for conference proceedings); a0130e (for monographs and collections); a0130k (for handbooks and dictionaries); a0130l (for collections of physical data tables), and a0130q ( for reports, dissertations, reports, etc.).


INSPEC on FirstSearch provides end-user searching capability from remote locations, and therefore at times and places that are convenient for patrons. As with any database searching, a good preliminary understanding of the structure of the database and of the searching protocols makes this database easy and productive to use. An introduction to the FirstSearch system and to the basic searching tips helps patrons to retrieve relevant and comprehensive information.

The serials in INSPEC are conveniently tagged to the holdings of OCLC participating libraries. This feature has several advantages for consortia subscription. It allows the user to see whether their library or another library within a consortium has the referenced item in its collection and therefore could initiate the borrowing process directly. In addition, through the online order function patrons can also send their orders directly to the interlibrary loan office without having to rewrite the references. Patrons can also e-mail references to themselves, colleagues or professors at no further charge. Also unique to INSPEC through OCLC is the ability to use the related subject heading feature to zero in on the direction of research areas by individual or corporate authors. This may be a useful feature to use in competitive intelligence in corporations.

However, few improvements could be made to the FirstSearch system would make end-user searching more effective. The restriction of only two Boolean ors in a search statement is an impediment to effective searching in several places in the Web version as outlined above. This deficiency also applies to the telnet version.

An important point to remember is that many of our users trained in searching the CD-ROMs, DIALOG and STN databases come to expect the same level of sophistication in any system they encounter. For example, true truncation in a search is particularly useful for verification purposes, e.g., searching for a journal that has a non-standard abbreviation in a list of references. One would ideally like to execute a search statement with full truncation capability in the source index, e.g. j* w elec* to obtain all variations of this title. In addition, when browsing the Exact phrase indexes, only one item can be selected for searching. One has to repeat the process of finding the information in the appropriate index each time another term is selected from the index.

Another weakness in the Web version of FirstSearch relates to the library holdings information. First, non-serial publications are not linked to library holdings, and this often leads to confusion for patrons who sometimes send requests to the Interlibrary Loan Department for items already held in the collection.

Moreover, after a search is completed and the results' list displayed, it is possible to click on an individual title or to tag a set of up to 20 records for viewing, printing or e-mailing. When individual titles are selected, the holdings statement for the serial publications identifying if the holding library appears at the head of each record. The holding statement Ownership: check the catalogs in your library suggests no holdings for that item, while the statement: Ownership: FirstSearch indicate your library owns this item or magazine identifies ownership of a particular item. The ownership information enables patrons to select items held by their library. For items not held, the patron may initiate the interlibrary loan (ILL) process from there. To identify holdings information or to initiate the ILL order process from a retrieved set in the Web version of FirstSearch, one must click on the title to display each record. This is very time-consuming. Alternatively, up to 20 records could be tagged for viewing, printing or e-mailing but these do not have holdings information, nor can one initiate interlibrary loan ordering from these tagged records so the usefulness of the holdings information and the ILL ordering process is lost.

The system offers the capability of reusing up to twenty previous searches through the History link. However, this link is only executable through the Advanced Search screen. It would be useful if History were present on every short screen display and on every screen as a menu item. Once the History feature is found and executed, a previous search could be re-executed by clicking on it, or a command search may be entered, or one may combine previous search results or both.

Appendix 1


'*Type + at the end of a word to search for the word and its plural (s or es only) and possessive forms.


Search Search example
Subject* su:(hard drive and ide)
Author au:salamo
Title ti:structural ceramics
Abstract* ab:vector bundle
Classification codes cc:a0110f or cc:telephone stations
Conference location cl:germany and su:semiconductors
Corporate source cs:ibm and su:microelectronics
Conference title* ct:aas
Descriptors* de:groupware and su:hypertext
Identifiers* id:semiconductor and ti:clean
Abstract number nu:a9304-1385k-006
Publisher pb:instituton of electrical engineers
Place of publication pl:australia and ti:biomedical
Report number rn:epri tr-100952
Standard number sn:0956-716x and ti:grain
Source so:avtomatika and ti:form
Sponsoring org. sp:ieee and cl:manchester
label su: is not required for a Subject search. FirstSearch uses su: if you type a search with no label. The Subject search finds information in these fields: descriptors, identifiers, abstracts, and titles. This is also the default field.


Bound-phrase Searches Searches for
Author au=salamo gj
Classification codes cc= a8670g
Descriptor de= nitrogen compounds
Identifier id= HNO/sub2/
Language ln=english
Source so=journal of geophysical research
Treatment codes tc=x


Treatment Codes
b bibliography
e economic
g general review
n new development
p practical
r product review
t theoretical or mathematical
x experimental

Citation Format

Salisbury, Lutishoor & Gupta, Usha. (1999). INSPEC on FirstSearch: An Evaluation and Tutorial for Effective Searching. Journal of Southern Academic and Special Librarianship: 01 [iuicode:]