How to Write a Research Paper: Search Strategies

A step-by-step guide.

Search Strategies

  • Boil your topic down to the most important words.  Ignore superfluous words like in, the, of, with, against, affect, impact.  Begin with a keyword search. 
  • Put each "different piece" of your topic in a separate search box, if available.  Using the topic of criticism of Van Gogh's Starry Night as an example below, each different piece of the topic is entered on a separate line.  Synonyms for the pieces are connected by OR--and kept on the same line--as seen below with criticize...

 

  •  Too many results?  Focus your search by searching for your keywords in the ABSTRACT field or the TITLE field.  Click on the All - Smart Search to select  the abstract or title field.  Or focus your search by using "an exact phrase" search.
  • Too few results?  Think of synonyms.  Add synonyms to your search--using OR--and keep your synonyms all on the same line
  • Increase your results by removing the least important "piece" of your search while still retaining the "essence" of your search (in the case above, it might be Van Gogh). 
  • Still no results?  Broaden your search slightly.  Can't find specific criticism on the Starry Night?  Look for criticism of Van Gogh--within these articles/books, you'll find criticism of Starry Night.  Still no luck?  Try a different journal article database.
  • When reviewing your results, look for relevant "subject" or "descriptor" words.  Find subject terms either on the results page, or at the end of individual records.  Write down relevant subject terms that you find.  
  • Go back to the search screen and using the subject terms you discovered, search your subject terms in the subject or descriptor field.  Subject terms are gold threads--they will almost always lead you to the most relevant results.
  • Be sure to take advantage of:
  • Boolean connectors (AND, OR, NOT)
  • Exact phrase searching -- "starry night" 
  • Field searches (search within the title, abstract, or subject fields)
  • When you find an article you want, use the       link to find full-text.
  • No full-text?  Use the Interlibrary Loan link to receive a copy of the article or book from another library.

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators (AND, OR, and NOT) are used to connect keywords and concepts when searching.

    Operator    
Example Result
AND

business AND ethics
cooking AND Spain

Retrieves records that contain    
ALL of the search terms.
OR

hotels OR motels
www OR world wide web
theater OR theatre

Retrieves records that contain
ANY of the search terms, but
does not necessarily include
all of them.
NOT

java NOT coffee
Clinton NOT (William OR Bill)

Excludes records containing
the second search term.

Search Strategies

If your initial search query does not produce the desired results, try:

Strategy Example
Word Choice

Keep search queries simple and descriptive;  use as few terms as possible.  Avoid natural language queries as they can limit your results--use colorado statehood instead of when did colorado first become a state.

Phrase Search

Use double quotations marks ("Barack Obama") to search terms as a phrase and narrow your results.  Remember that a search of "Barack Hussein Obama" will retrieve only those pieces of information that refer to Barack Hussein Obama, exactly like that; citations that refer to him as simply 'Barack Obama' will not be retrieved.

Limit

In Google, use site: to limit your results to a specific website or website domain. The query cloning site:gov will only retrieve information about cloning from U.S. Government websites.

Exclude

In Google, to remove unwanted search terms, place an - in front of the term you don't want. For example: eclipse -solar will find information on eclipses, but not solar eclipses.

Synonyms

To search for synonyms,  use the OR operator. In Google, the OR operator must be in all caps. A query on hotel OR lodging OR inn directories will retrieve any or all of the types of these words.

Word Endings

A query on child retrives results with 'children" and "childcare". Google automatically truncates search terms. To prevent automatic truncation, use a + sign in front of each term:  +child.  Library databases do not automatically truncate--you'll need to use help to figure out the symbol used to truncate, OR think of all word endings you'd like to include, and search them, on the same line, connected with OR.