How to search
Searching online is something many of us do every day; we look for an answer on Google, or we research product reviews before making a purchase using some basic search skills.
This tutorial aims to build on these skills by presenting techniques for searching effectively for journal articles and other academic literature using the resources presented in Where to search.
Effective searching relies on developing a search strategy, which helps you to convert your research question or topic into a form that the database can interpret. The steps in developing and implementing a search strategy are:
- Understand the research topic or question.
- Identify the concepts, and the search terms you will use.
- Combine the search terms to create the database search query.
- Perform the search in a relevant database.
- Evaluate the results of the initial search for relevance and quality.
- Modify the initial search and experiment as necessary.
Be prepared to experiment with different searches to find the most relevant material for your topic. It is important to search systematically. Detailed below are the steps to create and modify a search strategy, including specific techniques that can be applied as necessary at each step.
Steps in the process of developing a search strategy
1. Understand the research topic or question
To develop a search strategy, you need to understand the important concepts of your research topic or question. For further advice on this see Understanding the assignment and Understanding what information you need.
If you are required to come up with your own research question, make sure it is clear and answerable - a question that is too vague can be difficult to research.
For complex topics with multiple aspects, it may be necessary to develop a separate search query for different aspects.
2. Identify the concepts and the search terms you will use
Databases work by matching the terms you enter to the titles, abstracts, and subject headings in the records of items (typically journal articles) in the database. This means that you will find the most relevant results by using the same terms that are used in relevant sources. Prior reading and brainstorming on your topic is invaluable for identifying potential search terms.
Usually there are between two and four concepts in a topic. For each identified concept, make a list of relevant terms and synonyms. By including alternative terms your search is less likely to miss relevant articles.
Sample topic: What effect does caffeine have on the sleep patterns of adolescents?
Example concepts and alternative search terms:
Concept 1 - caffeine
Search terms - caffeine, coffee, energy drinks
Concept 2 - sleep
Search terms - sleep, insomnia
Concept 3 - adolescents
Search terms - adolescents, teenagers
Note that it is usually best to use broad terms in the initial search. In this case choosing sleep patterns rather than sleep would overlook potentially relevant results about sleep, but that did not include the word patterns.
3. Combine the search terms to create the database search query
To create the search query, connect your terms using AND and OR operators. Join the terms within a concept with the OR operator, then link the concept sets with the AND operator. For example:
(caffeine OR coffee OR energy drinks)
AND (sleep OR insomnia)
AND (adolescents OR teenagers)
This tells the database how to combine the terms:
OR tells the database to find any of the terms within the set. For example, for the first concept set, it will look for any record which has any of the words caffeine, coffee or energy drinks. Linking terms with OR therefore expands a search (increases the number of results).
AND tells the search engine to find items that are related to all three of the concept sets, not just one. This makes the search more specific, so you will find fewer (but more relevant) results.
By combining AND with OR (as shown in the example), you are telling the database you want results which include at least one term from each concept set, e.g. one record might include caffeine, insomnia, teenagers, while another includes energy drinks, insomnia, adolescents.
You need to find articles examining social media addiction amongst university students.
4. Perform the search in a relevant database
Once you’ve constructed your search query, you are ready to enter it into a database. Most databases work in a similar way, but may appear slightly different. The illustration below show entering a query in a typical academic database.
For advice on locating which databases and other information resources are most relevant for your research refer to Where to search.
Adding refinements to the search query
After you’ve entered the search query, you can add refinements if appropriate to improve your search. Two of the most useful refinements are phrase searching and truncation.
- Phrase searching
Enclosing words in quotation marks tells the database to look for that exact phrase rather than looking for the words separately, which can lead to more precise results.
For example, the abstract (Malisova et al., 2015) below shows a result from a search on energy drinks without quotation marks, with the search terms highlighted:
All drinks hydrate and most also provide nutrients and energy. Our objective was to evaluate the contribution of drinks to total energy intake in summer and winter. Data were obtained using the Water Balance Questionnaire (WBQ) from a sample of the general population in Athens, Greece (n = 984), 473 individuals (42 ± 18 years) in summer and 511 individuals (38 ± 20 years) in winter stratified by sex and age. The WBQ embeds a semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire of 58 foods and the Short International Physical Activity Questionnaire. Data were analyzed for the contribution of drinks to total energy intake. In winter, total energy intake was 2082 ± 892 kcal/day; energy intake from drinks was 479 ± 286 kcal/day and energy expenditure 1860 ± 390 kcal/day. In summer, total energy intake was 1890 ± 894 kcal/day, energy intake from drinks 492 ± 499 kcal/day and energy expenditure 1830 ± 491 kcal/day. Energy intake from drinks in summer was higher than in winter (p < 0.001) and in men higher than in women in both seasons (p < 0.001 in summer, p = 0.02 in winter). Coffee, coffee drinks, milk, chocolate milk and alcoholic drinks contributed approximately 75% of energy from drinks. Fruit juice and sugar-sweetened drinks, including soft drinks and fruit juice based drinks, were consumed less frequently contributing up to 25% of drink energy intake. Drinks contribute approximately 1/4 of total energy intake depending on the energy content of the drink and frequency of consumption. Coffee, dairy and alcoholic drinks were the main energy contributors.
Malisova, O., Bountziouka, V., Zampelas, A., & Kapsokefalou, M. (2015). Evaluation of drinks contribution to energy intake in summer and winter. Nutrients, 7(5), 3724-3738. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7053724
Searching without quotation marks is the same as searching on energy AND drinks.
In contrast, the following abstract (Deliens et al., 2015) shows a search result for “energy drinks” with quotation marks indicating a phrase:
This study assessed personal and environmental correlates of Belgian university students’ soft and energy drink consumption and investigated whether these associations were moderated by gender or residency. Four hundred twenty-five university students completed a self-reported on-line questionnaire assessing socio-demographics, health status, soft and energy drink consumption, as well as personal and environmental factors related to soft and energy drink consumption. Multiple linear regression analyses were conducted. Students believing soft drink intake should be minimized (individual subjective norm), finding it less difficult to avoid soft drinks (perceived behavioral control), being convinced they could avoid soft drinks in different situations (self-efficacy), having family and friends who rarely consume soft drinks (modelling), and having stricter family rules about soft drink intake were less likely to consume soft drinks. Students showing stronger behavioral control, having stricter family rules about energy drink intake, and reporting lower energy drink availability were less likely to consume energy drinks. Gender and residency moderated several associations between psychosocial constructs and consumption. Future research should investigate whether interventions focusing on the above personal and environmental correlates can indeed improve university students’ beverage choices.
Deliens, T., Clarys, P., De Bourdeaudhuij, I., & Deforche, B. (2015). Correlates of university students’ soft and energy drink consumption according to gender and residency. Nutrients, 7(8), 6550-6566. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7085298
The quotes ensure the words are next to each other and word order is maintained (in this case the search engine automatically finds “energy drink” as well as “energy drinks”).
Truncation is a way of expanding the search by looking for the various endings of a particular word. The truncation symbol is an asterisk in most databases. The asterisk is applied to the root of the word to indicate the different endings.
For example, by truncating adolescents to adolescen* the search would find adolescence, adolescent, adolescents.
If the root of the word is itself a word (such as sleep, in the search query) it will also be retrieved in a search on sleep*: sleep* retrieves sleep, sleepiness, sleeping, etc.
The initial search query, modified to include phrase searching and truncation.
Avoid truncation when the root of a word is too short. For example, you would not use ill* to retrieve ill or illness, as this would also retrieve illicit, illustrates, illusion, illuminate, Illinois and any other terms that begin with ill.
You need to find articles examining social media addiction amongst university students.
5. Evaluate the initial results for relevance and quality
Database records are designed to help you decide whether an item is relevant before accessing the full text. Some features covered below also aid greatly in the evaluation phase.
Your existing knowledge of the topic will help you decide which results are most useful. If you are having difficulty with this, you may need to do some background reading.
In addition to this section, see the Evaluating information for detailed guidance on assessing the quality of resources.
Database features which help in evaluating the results of a search include abstracts, sorting, limits and subject headings.
An abstract is a brief summary of the resource which allows you to make an initial judgement on the relevance of the work.
Some databases present the search results according to relevance, based on the frequency of the search query terms in each record. This feature is designed to bring the articles of highest relevance to the top of the results.
Other databases automatically list the results by date, starting with the newest articles. Be aware of the default setting and adjust it if needed.
Limiting (or filtering) functions are often presented as checkboxes to the side of the search results or following the search boxes on the advanced search screen, and allow you to limit your results to those that meet certain criteria. Publication date and publication/source type are the most used limits, and once applied, can save a lot of time when evaluating search results.
For example, for some assignments you may be instructed to only use material published in the last 5 years, or only academic or scholarly articles. Using limits would mean you don’t have to look through resources which are too old or come from non-scholarly sources.
Usually database records are indexed with subject headings (also called subject terms), which are chosen from a predefined list to indicate the emphasis of each article. Searching on subject headings can therefore focus the search on the most relevant articles. Looking at the subject headings of a relevant record may also suggest search terms that you had not considered.
You can often achieve a more effective search strategy by combining search terms and subject headings in the same search query. For example, this search looking for the search terms in any part of the record (in Anywhere except full text) retrieved 631 results:
Looking at several relevant records from the results showed adolescent and teenagers were subject headings. By modifying the initial search to search on those terms as subject headings (by selecting All subjects & indexing), the results narrow to those which focus significantly on adolescents or teenagers (in this case, 289 of the 631 records)
In this search the subject headings happened to be ones which were already included in the search query, however you may find relevant subject headings that you had not considered. For example, in the above search, sleep deprivation appeared in resulting records as the subject heading for insomnia.
Subject headings can be used for all disciplines, but they may not be available for every topic, and it is best to only select them if they relate closely to your area of interest. Subject headings are also often unique to a particular database.
They are especially important in medicine and health, where standard Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) are used across the core databases.
6. Modify the initial search and experiment as necessary
After evaluating the initial results you can consider ways of amending the search to improve the results, or to find further relevant items.
The techniques and features covered in Steps 4 and 5, such as truncation and the use of subject headings can be applied as appropriate here, depending on whether you need to expand or narrow a search. Some general tips follow:
If you don’t get enough search results:
- Check for spelling errors in the search terms or mistakes in entering the search query
- use broader search terms (e.g. artist instead of painter)
- add alternative search terms using OR
- remove any limits
- search a different database
If you get too many irrelevant search results:
- use narrower search terms (e.g. ballet instead of dance)
- focus your search by applying limits
- add another concept to your query using AND
Be systematic. Use the database search history/recent search function, which makes it easy to return to and modify a previous search, as well as to keep track of your search strategy.
Searching in specific fields of the record
One way to increase the relevance of results is to select a field to search within, such as title or author name. This can be useful if one of your search terms is a common word and you are finding a lot of irrelevant results.
Try the activities below to practice what you have learned.
- Effective searching relies on developing a search strategy to express your topic or research question in a way the database understands
- The process for creating a search strategy is to:
- Understand the research question or topic
- Identify the key concepts and search terms you will use
- Combine the search terms to create a query
- Perform the search in a suitable database, adding refinements if necessary
- Evaluate the results
- Further modify the search if needed
- You can use search techniques like truncation and phrase searching to improve your query
- After searching, you can use filters or adjust the sorting order to help you find the most relevant results
- For advice on how to evaluate the sources you find, see Evaluating information