Sometimes the most difficult part of doing research is just getting started. Trying to decide what to use can be overwhelming when faced with such a variety of sources and formats. Here are some suggestions and tips for formulating an effective search strategy to get information for your paper or project.
There are a variety of sources available to you. There is not a definitive best type - it depends upon the purpose of your search and what information you need.
For example, if you are looking at current events, you probably won't want to start with books, as they take much longer to publish than articles or Internet sites, and therefore would likely be out of date. However, if you start looking at the history of the context of the event, books might be a good place to look, as you will often find historical accounts and analyses in books.
For more about the different types of periodicals and how to evaluate sources, see the Evaluating Sources module that follows.
Look at your working thesis statement, or the topic of your paper. What are the major terms that you find? These are the key terms, or keywords, that you should use to create your search.
When creating your search terms, remember that synonyms are words that mean the same thing. It may be that the specific term (or terms) you have chosen has synonyms. Make a list of synonyms for each of your keywords. This will give you a variety of terms you can use in your search if your original words don't get the results you want or need.
Your key term(s) may have homonyms - words that are spelled the same that have a different meaning. Consider the word bass. Do you think of a fish, or a stringed instrument, or the low register in music? If this is one of your search terms, you may have to use some special tricks to get the correct results.
Sometimes your keywords are made up of more than one word - they are a phrase. If this is the case, you will need to enclose the words in quotation marks in order to search for the exact phrase. Otherwise, a database will search for the words in any order, which oftentimes changes the meaning of the phrase. For example, you would want to use "World War I" instead of World War I.
So, what do you do when your search term has synonyms or is a homonym, or you get way too many unrelated results when you do your search? You use Boolean Operators!
Don't let the term throw you off! This method uses the words AND, OR, & NOT to help define your search. When you do a search on Google, it ignores those words and looks for pages that have all, some, or one of your search terms. That's why you can get so many results, with a large number of them having nothing to do with what you want. However, when you use these words in a database search, it will narrow or widen your search.
Let's take a look at what each one does.
Cecelia Vetter, Diagram Explaining Boolean Operators. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
It might seem like AND would give you more results. But, it actually narrows your search down by looking for items that contain BOTH words, instead of just one. This word is good to use when you get lots of results that aren't really related to what you want. You will need to choose another term that will narrow the results down to your specific topic.
For example, if you want to find articles that discuss pet ownership of multiple types of animals at one time, you might want to use cats AND dogs for articles about people who have both.
You can use AND to deal with homonyms by choosing a term that would specify your usage of the word. For example, bass AND fishing or bass AND orchestra will lead to significantly different results.
OR is almost the opposite of AND. OR gives you more results by looking for either of the terms entered. Use OR when you want to include synonyms in your search.
Following our example from AND, say you now want to find pet ownership articles, but you don't really care which type they have, just that they have either cats OR dogs.
NOT acts like AND by narrowing your results. You can use it to exclude terms that you do not want.
Using our pet example, you could search dogs NOT cats to get results that do not include cat owners.
You can use this to remove results for homonyms by using NOT with a term that would indicate the other usage of your term. For example, bass NOT fish, which will provide results such as the orchestral instrument, or the low end of the vocal range.
Check out the following video for examples of using Boolean Operators.
McMaster Libraries. How Library Stuff Works: Boolean Operators (AND OR NOT). YouTube. Creative Commons Attribution license (reuse allowed).
Once you have started your search, you can also make use of subjects and subject headings within a database. You can often find these in a list next to your search results, or included in information about a source when you view it. Clicking on a hyperlinked subject will get you a list of the articles that also have that subject. You can also use the subjects to choose keywords when refining your original search.
Location of Subjects in an EBSCO search results list. You may need to click on an arrow next to Subject to display the list. Selecting a subject here narrows your current results to articles with that subject. If you click on Show More, you get a larger list, and you can select multiple subjects.
Location of Subjects in an EBSCO article. Clicking on a subject in this list will retrieve all articles in the database with that term listed as a subject.
Location of subjects in the results of a Gale database search. Click on the button to see a list of subjects. Clicking on a subject here will narrow your current results to only those articles with the selected subject.
Location of subjects in an article in a Gale database. Clicking on a subject here will retrieve all articles in the database with the same subject.