Library Quick Start

Basic search strategies, step by step

Search Strategy: Step by Step

1. Summarize your topic

Write one or two sentences summarizing your search topic. It can be helpful to state your topic in the form of a question you want to answer.

2. Identify concepts, and translate into search terms

Identify:

  • Unique terms: PTSD
     
  • Exact phrases: "global warming"
     
  • Synonyms: (education OR training)  (woman OR women OR female)
     
  • Multiple meanings: cloud, virus
     
  • Word stems: lead* finds leads, leader, leadership
    Usually (*) but sometimes (!). Check the Search Help within the database.
     
  • Different spellings: defen*e finds defense or defence
    ​Usually (*) but sometimes (?). Check the Search Help within the database.
     
  • Terms to exclude: NOT security excludes the term, security
     
  • Broader or narrower terms in case you get too few or too many results (geographic, date range, etc.)

3. Construct your search statement

 

You will most likely modify these repeatedly as you learn what works and what doesn’t. Remember to look for Advanced Search features and filtering too!

Use AND, OR, NOT operators as needed in ALL CAPS.

  • OR: found item will have either of the terms
    Surround the terms with parentheses.


  • AND: found item must have both terms
    Nowadays, no need to type it. It’s usually assumed, or it’s built into the search drop down menus.

  • NOT: found item will only have the first term
    Surround the terms with parentheses.

Boolean operators

Example Search Statement
  Concept 1 military
AND Concept 2 (ethics OR morals)
AND Concept 3 (education OR training)
AND Concept 4 lead*

4. Identify places to search

5. Evaluate your results

Helpful guidelines for evaluating information, especially if it doesn't come from a library database.

6. Keep thorough notes

Where you looked, new terms you discovered, what search strategies worked/didn't work, etc.

Example Notes
Date Database/Source Search String Useful? Y/N/Comments
       
       
       

7. Modify your search as needed

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Search is an iterative process. Modify your search strategy as needed.

Get the GWC Quick Guide to Literature Reviews

Quick guide to literature reviews

Ways to Approach the Research Process

You can approach the research process in a couple of different ways: pearl growing or onion peeling. We recommend both. Avoid cherry picking.

Pearl Growing Onion Peeling Cherry Picking
pearl onion cherries
Like the accumulating layers of a pearl, when you have one highly relevant source, you can use it to find more relevant items. Look for keywords or descriptors, the list of references, a related items list, or a "cited by" link. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, when you have a large results set, you can use filters to remove irrelevant items from your list.

Like picking ripe cherries from a tree, you may be tempted to only select sources that support your thesis, ignoring those that may contradict your claim. 

Resist this temptation because then your literature review will be unbalanced, and you may overlook gaps in the body of knowledge or areas where your research would have the most impact.