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ENGL 1020 & Literature Classes

Designing Your Search Strategy

Where Do I Start?


Sometimes the most difficult part of doing research is just getting started.  You can become overwhelmed by the variety of sources and formats of information available to you, as well as trying to figure out what you should use.  Here are some suggestions and tips for formulating an effective strategy for searching for information for your paper or project.

Types of Sources

There are a variety of sources available to you.  There is not a definitive best type - it will depend 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to start with books, as they take much longer to publish than articles or Internet sites, and therefore would likely be out of date.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.

  • Books - Books generally take the longest time for publication, and therefore may go out of date sooner.  This also means that they don't contain up-to-the-minute information.  They are good for looking at historical topics, topics that don't change rapidly, and analysis of topics.
  • Periodicals - Periodicals are published faster than books, and are generally the go-to source for current research and more timely information. Academic journals are usually considered reliable and credible sources of information.  Popular magazines require additional evaluation to determine suitability for your purpose. 
  • Internet Sites - Internet sites can be updated almost instantaneously, so they are often the best source for breaking news and current events.  Because anyone can create content on the Internet with no editorial control, you must be diligent in evaluating these sources for accuracy, credibility, bias, and purpose.

For more about the different types of periodicals and how to evaluate sources, see the Evaluating Sources module that follows.

Identify Key Terms


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 will want to use to begin creating your search.


Something to keep in mind when creating your search terms is synonyms, or 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.  But don't worry!  We are going to look at how to deal with synonyms and homonyms right now.


Boolean Operators

So, what do you do when your search term has synonyms or is a homonym, or you just get way too many unrelated results when you do your search?  You use Boolean Operators!

Don't let the term throw you off!  This is a way to use the words AND, OR, & NOT to help you 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.  When you use these in a database search, it will narrow or widen you search. 

Let's take a look at what each one does.


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 is good to use when you get lots of results that aren't really related to what you want.  Your term may be found in conjunction with other topics that you don't want.  You will want 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 term.

The picture below illustrates what using AND does to your search.

Boolean AND




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 out 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.

The picture below illustrates what using OR does to your search.

Boolean OR


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.

The picture below illustrates what using NOT does to your search.

Boolean Not

Subject Headings

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 all of the articles that also have that subject.  You can also use the subjects to choose keywords when refining your original search.

EBSCO Results Subjects

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.


EBSCO Article 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.

Subjects are located in the toolbar on the left side of the page.

Location of subjects in the results of a Gale database search.  Clicking on a subject here will narrow your current results to only those articles with the selected subject.


Gale Article Subjects

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.