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Guide to Searching

Develop a search strategy using keywords and boolean operators. Dig deeper to learn about different ways to search and locate information.

Search Tips

This page will help you:

  • Define information need and transform research question into search strategy
  • Match information needs and search strategies to search tools
  • Combine keywords using appropriate boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT)
  • Design and refine needs and search strategies based on search results.

Background Research

Once you have a research question, you can begin to break that question down into components that become keywords in your search strategy.

There are different ways researchers break down and answer questions, but in almost every discipline you will need to do some background research to see what scientific or creative work related to your topic has already been done. What you find may prompt you to adjust your research questions, do more reading or searching, and so on.

This is what is meant when you hear that searching is "iterative" and "non-linear.”

This stage of the research process can lead you down one rabbit hole after another online. (We’ve all been there.) So it can be helpful to employ a few techniques discussed below for keeping your searches targeted and intentional:

Identifying Keywords

To create a search query that tools like JSTOR, PubMed, or IEEExplore can understand, you will need to use keywords.

Many of us are used to searching using what’s called "natural language" to find what we’re looking for on places like Google, Facebook, or Amazon. While some research tools have started adding natural language or semantic search capabilities, many have not.

Keywords will help you:

  • Find relevant information quickly from a broad range of sources
  • Modify or adjust your inquiry as you learn more about your topic and status of the scholarly conversation

Here is an example of identifying keywords in a research question from the social sciences:

How can we improve the mental health of high school students in Rhode Island?

What are the key components that you see here? Look for nouns, unique descriptors, and geographic or demographic distinctions to narrow in on results that will help answer the question. Writing out the question and highlighting the keywords you see is also a great idea. Like this:

How can we improve the mental health of high school students in Rhode Island?

The keywords found in this question are:

  • Mental health
  • High school students
  • Rhode Island

In the humanities, scholars are often doing research in preparation for the production of their own creative works. Here are some examples from a group working on directing the play Hecuba by Marina Carr:

What is the legacy of Hecuba in pop culture and beyond? What are some examples of how sexuality, ritual performance, and sacrifice were depicted or represented in Ancient Greece?

From this question, we can see these themes and keywords:

  • Hecuba and Marina Carr
  • Ancient Greece
  • Pup culture (which can take many forms such as plays, movies, music, or visual art)
  • Sexuality
  • Ritual performance
  • Sacrifice

Each one of these key concepts can be used to inform your research.

Boolean Search

Boolean operators are used by most specialized search engines to connect keywords and phrases. They are: AND, OR, and NOT.

AND

Narrows and connects separate concepts. Use AND when you want search results to include all of your keywords. Example: banana AND bread

OR

Expands and connects similar concepts. Use OR when you want at least one of your search terms to appear in your search results. Example: students OR young people OR adolescent

NOT

Drastically limits your search results. Use NOT to exclude results that contain a term. Proceed with caution. Example: apple NOT Apple Inc

Some search engines have more advanced options, known as "search syntax." Some common syntax options are:

Quotations " "

Search for a phrase (two or more words together) in the order you put them.

Example: "mental health"

Parentheses ( )

Group two or more keywords or phrases together.

Example: "mental health" AND (teenager OR youth)

Wildcard a.k.a. root extension * or !

Replace one or more characters with any letter.

Example: educat*

Search for all variation of the root "educat" at once. This will capture education, educational, etc.

Visualize Boolean Searching

venn diagram representing AND boolean operator
venn diagram representing OR boolean operator
venn diagram representing NOT boolean operator

Search Logs

After you identify your keywords, it is helpful to keep track of them. You can do this simply in the note taking program of your choice, but many find it helpful to keep track of keywords in a table format, where the key components or topics of the search are aligned.

In the following example, you would combine topics 1, 2, and 3 with the boolean operator AND, while any synonyms you write would be combined using OR.

spreadsheet with research question and keywords in a table

If you like this structure, here is a template that you can download:

In Practice

Write a research question that interests you and circle the keywords and phrases.

Can you think of additional keywords or synonyms that you could use? How would you find keywords or synonyms if you don’t know them off the top of your head?

Construct a search using your keywords and boolean operators.

Learning Objectives

This page was designed to help you:

  • Define information need and transform research question into search strategy
  • Match information needs and search strategies to search tools
  • Combine keywords using appropriate boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT)
  • Design and refine needs and search strategies based on search results.
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