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Research Process: Researching and Writing: Create Your Search Strategy

This guide has been created to provide quick access to resources that support the research process.

Search Strategy

Developing a search strategy is the starting point for your information retrieval. Depending on the type of project you are completing - whether you just need a few articles for a class assignment or you need to find several articles for a major research paper, the principles of a well structured search are the same. The following are strategies for creating effective searches:

Write your topic out in sentence or question form

How did Aboriginals participate in the fur trade in Canada?

Break your topic sentence up into main ideas or keywords

Aboriginals, fur trading, Canada

Think of synonyms or alternate words to describe each concept

Use dictionaries, encyclopedias, or a thesaurus to find synonyms (alternate words).

Aboriginals, natives, First Nations, Indigenous

Add "Boolean operators" (AND, OR) to make a complete search statement

Use AND to limit or narrow your search and OR to broaden your search to include synonyms.

Aboriginal AND fur trading AND Canada
Aboriginals OR natives OR Indigenous

Add wildcards to search for all possible word endings

A wildcard is usually represented by an asterisk (*).  This is also called truncation.

Aboriginal* OR native*

Add quotation marks (if relevant) to search for phrases

A phrase is usually created by "[phrase]"

"climate change"  "Cold War"  "human rights"

Evaluate your results

If you are finding too many or too few results, try these tricks:

To broaden your search (find more results):

  • Find a synonym for each keyword
  • Search for a broader concept (dog instead of poodle)
  • Use wildcards/truncation

To narrow your search (find fewer results):

  • Add another concept or idea to your search with AND
  • Use more specific words (poodle instead of dog)
  • Use a phrase or phrases

Brock University Library. (n.d.). Creating search statements. https://researchguides.library.brocku.ca/researchfoundations/searchstatement

From your thesis statement, identify the main concepts or keywords. You will use these to find information in search tools like library catalogs, library databases, or on the Web. By creating a list of keywords, you will be able to construct better and more efficient searches. These in turn will lead you to more plentiful and relevant information supporting your thesis.

Three-Steps to Choosing Keywords

1. Extract single words or short phrases.

You will not use complete sentences as you would in normal conversation to search. Leave out minor words such as articles ("a," "an," or "the") and prepositions or verb phrases ("on," "in," or "going to").

Also, use nouns (person, place, or thing) as keywords. Avoid verbs (action words) and use adjectives (descriptive words) sparingly.

2. Experiment with different synonyms.

Try thinking of synonyms (words that have the same meaning as another word) of your keywords. For example, you start with the word "trash," but you could also experiment with using the words "garbage" or “waste.” An online or printed thesaurus is a great place to find synonyms.

3. Think of related terms to describe your topic.

What are some other topics or areas related to your thesis? These may be worthy of consideration if you are having trouble finding good keywords or if you want to further refine your research focus. For example, some related terms to "pollution" are "acid rain," "global warming," or "refuse water." The related terms may be more specific or less specific than the original terms in your thesis. Each combination will change the number and type of your search results.

Brock University Library. (n.d.). Keywords. https://researchguides.library.brocku.ca/researchfoundations/choosekeywords

OSLIS Elementary Videos. (2017, October 2). Using keywords [Video]. https://youtu.be/wMxi6mMYdqE

Boolean Searching is a database search method based on the principles of Boolean logic, originally developed by a British mathematician in the mid-19th century. Boolean searching allows you to combine search terms in specific ways for effective matches.

Boolean Term: AND

Use AND to connect keywords and narrow results. Every term connected by an AND must be found in the results of the search tool.

In creating an AND search statement, you will not want to use every term you have identified. Doing so will produce a very limited pool of results, or no results at all. A better approach is to select terms for each facet or separate concept in your thesis, and then connect them with an AND. Try two or three of your strongest keywords linked together at a time. Remember, every time you add a word you will narrow your search and receive fewer results. If you have too few results, eliminate keywords or substitute others.

Examples

  • "weight lifting" AND obesity 
  • exercise AND health AND elderly
  • "physical activity" AND diabetes AND "aging adults"

Boolean Term: OR

Use OR to search with synonyms and expand results. With OR, you are telling the search system that you want information about either one idea or another. This is an ideal search strategy to use with synonyms. This can be particularly effective when combined with an AND term.

Examples

  • "physical activity" OR exercise
  • elderly OR "aging adults" OR "older adults"
  • running OR cardio AND obesity

Boolean Term: NOT

Use NOT to eliminate keywords. Here you are directing the search system to ignore results including a particular word or phrase. This is helpful to eliminate topics that change the results. For example, if you want to know about manatees from around the world, but not Florida manatees specifically, you can search for "manatees NOT Florida" to eliminate any results that mention Florida.

NOT can be used in conjunction with AND or OR. Just make sure NOT comes after the keyword you want to include and before the keyword you want excluded.

Examples

  • exercise NOT "weight lifting"
  • walking NOT running AND obesity
  • exercise OR "physical activity" NOT teenagers 

*Some search tools use a minus sign (-) instead of NOT to eliminate keywords.

Brock University Library. (n.d.). Creating search statements. https://researchguides.library.brocku.ca/researchfoundations/searchstatement

McMaster Libraries. (2016, November 28). How library stuff works: Boolean Operators (AND OR NOT) [Video]. https://youtu.be/bCAULDuMcso

Phrase searching can be a very effective search strategy for narrowing your search for sources on your topic. By putting quotation marks around two or more words, you force a database or search engine to find your words together in the document instead of separately. 

For example, self-governance is a phrase. These two words must be together and must be in this order to have meaning. When searching for a phrase, such as self-governance, some search tools will require the user to put quotation marks ("") around them to keep the phrase intact.

How it works

Using the example above, if you were doing a search on self-governance, you would use the quotation marks in the following manner:

"self-governance" AND Indigenous

Not every search engine requires the use of quotation marks. Some automatically assume that two words together, not separated by AND, OR, or NOT, mean you are searching for those terms as a phrase.

Refer to the help guide of the search tool you are using to determine whether or not it is required.

Further Consideration

Think carefully before using quotations, as there are some cases where your search terms might produce better results if you are not searching them together as a phrase. 

For example: Indigenous communities

While it is true this could be searched as the phrase: "Indigenous communities"

It is also true that some authors might write about "communities that are Indigenous", and you would miss out on these results if you were to force the phrase search using quotations.

University of Victoria Libraries. (n.d.). Indigenous Community Development and Governance (ICDG): Phrase searching. https://libguides.uvic.ca/icdg/phrasesearching

OSLIS Elementary Videos. (2018, August 2). Searching effectively: Phrase searching & truncation [Video]. https://youtu.be/L0BF5niVegs