To ensure you get meaningful and relevant search results you need to have a search strategy. Research databases don't understand the details of your search topic, so you'll need to prepare a strategy to make sure that you identify all the relevant information on your topic. Having a strategy will also help you recall a manageable number of relevant search results.
Planning a search strategy is a three step process:
1. Identify search terms and any alternative terms for your key concepts
2. Combine your search terms
3. Use search techniques to enhance your search
Think about those topics/concepts and produce lists of keywords that you could use to track down information on those topics.
Think carefully about suitable keywords and synonyms (alternative words that have a similar meaning) that will enable you to find manageable amounts of relevant material - not so many results that they are unmanageable and cause information overload, or so few that you retrieve insufficient information for you needs.
You may find it useful to use techniques such as brainstorming, words lists or mind maps to generate your keywords
Are there any alternative words and/or phrases you should include in your search in order to improve your search results?
If you were researching the failure of clinical trials in the UK you could use the following keywords: failure, success, demise, challenges, risk etc.
As well as searching for the UK, you might also search for United Kingdom, GB, Great Britain etc.
When you are searching the global literature think about differences in spellings and terminology, and incorporate alternatives into your search strategy. Truncation and wildcard symbols can help with this.
For example: globalisation (British spelling) vs. globalization (American English spelling)
Also think about differing terminology for the same subject. Subject terms and thesauri can help you with this.
For example: holiday vs. vacation / underground vs.subway
Consider whether your area of research uses subject specific terminology, technical terms or other controlled vocabulary.
Use these specialised terms in your searching to improve your results.
If you do not know the standard terminology then the database subject index or thesaurus may help.
Have acronyms or abbreviations been used in the sources you have read?
These can be included in your search terms in order to find matching results.
BMI and/or Body Mass Index
heart attack / Myocardial infarction and/or MI
Consider whether there are key thinkers, writers, experts or analysts who are prominent or active in your research area.
It may be worth including these 'names' in your searches.
If you are searching across long time periods, remember that terminology changes over time. New words appear, others change meaning so be prepared to reflect this in your search strategy.
For example: tweet or twitter has a dual meaning:
It is possible to use a number of different keywords or search terms in a single search, by using operators.
Operators link your search terms and define the relationship between them.
This enables more accurate searching and therefore more relevant results being returned. It also saves you time as you don't have to carry out numerous similar searches where just one or two search terms are changed each time.
The three most commonly used operators are AND, OR, NOT. These are known as Boolean operators. They can be used to broaden or narrow a search and to exclude unwanted search terms and concepts.
Use AND to narrow your search.
Using AND between your search terms narrows your search as it instructs the database that all your search terms must appear (in any order).
For example: caffeine AND performance
- will only return results where both words are present
Because all search terms must be present, using AND makes the search more focused.
In some (but not all) databases and search engines the AND is implied so if you enter multiple words the database will search for results which contain all/both words.
Use OR to broaden your search.
Using OR between search terms broadens your results as any or all of your search terms can be present.
For example: adolescent OR teenager
- will return results where either one or both of these words are present
It is extremely useful for finding synonyms or related concepts.
Using OR enables you to carry out a number of similar searches in one go, saving you time.
Use NOT to narrow your search.
Using NOT narrows your search as it instructs the database to ignore results that contain particular words.
For example: social media NOT twitter
- will return results that include social media but do not include twitter
NOT tends to be used less than the And and OR operators.
Use it with care as you may exclude useful articles which cover a range of topics of relevance to you.
You can use search techniques to help improve your searching. By applying these techniques, you can increase, reduce or improve the relevancy of your search results, making it easier to access to the right materials. For more, see the Search tips guide.
Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings.
To use truncation, enter the root of a word and put the truncation symbol at the end.
The database will return results that include any ending of that root word.
The asterisk * symbol is most commonly used for truncation. However, check out the help screens as !, ?, or # may also be used.
child* will find child, children, childlike, childhood etc.
diet* will find diet, diets, dietary etc.
method* will find method, methods, methodology etc.
Use it with care to avoid finding too many alternatives.
Wildcards are similar to truncation but they are used to substitute for a single letter or no letter in a word.
They broaden your search by including variant word spellings.
The question mark symbol is most commonly used. However, check out the help screens as ! , *, or # may also be used.
wom?n will find woman and women
optimi?ation will find optimisation and optimization
model?ing will find modeling and modelling
Phrase searching is the most limiting technique as it is used to specify that your terms must appear next to each other, and in the order you specify.
Phrase searching is commonly achieved by surrounding your phrase with quotation marks.
Always check the Database Help screens, as some databases may use different symbols.
Phrase searching examples: