Searching for information – a step by step guide
– a step by step guide
How to choose search terms
Formulate your research question
If your research question is clearly defined, it will be easier for you to limit your subject and decide which hits (search results) are relevant. Are you finding it hard to come up with a searchable research question? Devote some time to searching and reading up on your subject generally. Hopefully, you will come up with a question that works.
Identify central words and terms
Once you have formulated your research question, it’s time to start searching. The search words you choose, i.e. the words you use when you search in different databases and search services, are of major significance for the results of the search. So how do you choose search words?
Here, we will use the following research question as our starting point:
“How do the media influence youth’s views on climate change?”
Begin by identifying the words that carry meaning. They are called keywords and in this example, they are:
- climate change
Find synonyms and related words
The next step is to find synonyms and words that are related to your keywords, and translate them into English. These will be your search words. Collect words throughout the writing process, from articles you read, webpages you visit, etc. so that you cover all aspects of your research question. You will use these search words in various combinations when you do your searches later.
Synonyms and related words (film 03:14)
This worksheet will help you to collect and organise the search words you find.
- Download the worksheet and collect your search words (word)
- Worksheet with search examples (pdf)
In the library’s search guides you will find more tips for specific subjects on how to choose your search terms. Choose the guide that is the most appropriate for your course/subject.
Where do I search?
At the library, there are databases and search services that are particularly useful when you want to find academic articles, theses and books. Which search service or database you should choose will depend on what you are searching for. Some databases focus on a certain subject while others are more general. Read more about what defines a scholarly text.
General search services
It is often useful to begin by using a more general search service such as Libsearch or Swepub.
Links to Libsearch, Swepub and more tips about how to find academic material
In the library’s subject guides, there are databases, journals and search tips for specific subjects.
Check whether this is a search guide for your subject
If there is a database that focuses specifically on your subject, it is usually best to begin to search there. In contrast to search engines like Google, when you use the library’s subject databases, you can steer your search and get better hits.
You will find all our databases in our A-Z list
Encyclopaedias and dictionaries
If you are searching for basic facts or if you want to define a specific term, see if there is an encyclopaedia on your subject.
How do I search?
Once you have chosen your search terms, the next step is to try them in different databases. In order for your search results to be as relevant as possible, you need to know some basic search techniques.
Combine search terms
By using the Boolean operators AND, OR and NOT, you can combine your search terms and steer your search.
If you put AND between your search terms, that means all the search words must be in your search hits. For example, climate change AND youth. The more search terms you combine with AND, the fewer hits you will get.
If you put OR between your search terms, that means all or one of the search words must be in your search hits. For example: climate change OR global warming. Use OR when you search for synonyms and/or closely related terms in order to broaden your search. The more search words you combine with OR, the more hits you will get.
Only use NOT when you want to exclude a word from your search. For example: electric cars NOT hybrid cars
Search for a phrase
Use quotation marks “ ” when you want to search for a term that is made up of two or more words, for example, “social media”. Then you will get hits with the actual term. However, if you search for social media without the quotation marks, you will get hits with either of these two words when they occur separately in text as well.
Search for parts of words (truncation)
Search for the first part of a word followed by * to find all possible endings and inflected forms of the word. For example: brain* will give hits for brains, braininess, brainchild, brainstorm, brainstem, etc.
Search in selected fields
If you do a search using the database’s advanced search function, it is often possible to search only in selected fields, for example, author, subject word or in abstracts. This will give fewer and hopefully better hits.
How can I improve my search?
When you search for scholarly articles, it is important to continually evaluate the hits you get. Are the search results feasible? Are the hits relevant (do they seem to be about your subject)?
Did you get too many hits?
- Check your search words. Is there a more specific search word that you have not yet tested?
- Add more search words and combine them with AND
- Limit the search to the most recent years or perhaps to a certain language or type of publication.
Did you get too few hits?
- Check your search terms. Have you been too specific? Try to find more general search terms (combine with OR).
- Broaden your search by using fewer search terms.
- Try truncation, for example, brain*
- Test the same search terms in another database. Perhaps there is a more specific database for your subject?
- Check that all your search terms are spelt correctly and don’t forget to translate them into English.
Were your hits not relevant?
- Try using other search terms. Are there any synonyms that can be used? Many search services have a list of subject words - a thesaurus - which will give you tips about what search terms will work the best in that particular database or search service.
- Try searching in another database. Perhaps you will get more relevant search hits there.
- Search for phrases to increase the relevance of your search hits, for example, *climate change*.
How do I choose among my hits?
When you have a list of search hits that are manageable for you, you need to choose the articles you are going to work with. Here are some useful questions that will help you in the process:
- Has the article been reviewed by other scholars?
This is often referred to as peer review in English databases.
- Is the article relevant for your research question?
Begin by reading the titles of the articles in the list of hits. If a title seems interesting, then read the article’s abstract. By reading the abstract, which is a summary of the article’s content, you will be able to decide whether you want to go on and read the entire article.
- Is the information in the article still up-to-date and topical?
The importance of topicality can vary from subject area to subject area and will also depend on how much literature there is on that subject. Are there more recent articles about the subject which you can choose instead? Two-time limits that are commonly used are maximum 5 or 10 years old.
How can I save and document my searches?
By documenting your searches step by step, you will save time later on. This will enable you to recreate the successful searches and you will be able to continue searches that you started earlier. You will also be able to show your supervisors and teachers that you have been working methodically.
Different ways of documenting searches
- Examples of templates (word) for documenting your searches
- Save your search history
In most subject databases, you will be able to save your search history. Normally, to do that, you must set up an account (free of charge) in the database.
- Write a log book
Writing a lob book means quite simply taking notes of the searches you do and the results of the searches. Take notes by hand or use a program of your choice.
CONTACT US IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS
We are very happy to answer any questions about searches at the library’s information desk or you can contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 040-665 73 00
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