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Search skills

The basics

Break down your research question

Planning your search can help you find everything you need. Identify which terms are necessary to include in your search, and consider different ways in which those concepts could be expressed...

Think about what you're searching

Searching the catalogue, 1980s-style

How you go about your search will depend on where it is you're searching.

Most academic resources will not include the full text of an article, so your search terms will need to match against things like the title, author names, abstract summary, and any keywords that have been added by the cataloguers.

Look at your search results to see what your search terms have been matched against. The search results may suggest other terms to try.

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Search techniques

Using operators

 Most databases allow you to enter elaborate controlled searches using special words and characters ("operators")...

Subject headings

Some databases will let you search directly against standardised subject headings. These headings use a controlled vocabulary and are applied uniformly across articles on the same topic, irrespective of the terminology used in those articles. For example: articles about cats, kittens, and moggies might be indexed under the uniform subject heading "felines".

Databases may also have a thesaurus feature which will map a search term (e.g. "cat") to the subject heading used (e.g. "felines").

catIn certain cases, subject headings may even be arranged in a hierarchy, for example "mammals" > "felines" > "cats, domestic", and may enable you to either search on a single level alone, or to explode at a point in that hierarchy so as to include all branches beneath.

Other methods

Citation searching

Finding a single journal article can lead you to more texts on the subject. The author will have referenced other work to support their arguments, so looking at the references of a text you've found should lead you to similar material. 

Some databases will index these references within the article record, making them easier to locate. Some (e.g. Google Scholar, Scopus and Web of Science) will even link to later articles which have gone on to cite the text you've found.

The tree of cited and citing articles allows you to follow an academic argument through time

By tracing the cited and citing articles, you can follow an academic argument as it develops through time.

The number of times an article has been cited can act as an indicator of that article's perceived importance within a topic. Bear in mind that this may not be an indicator of its quality -- it may be a notorious paper for the wrong reasons! Also, bear in mind that the older a paper is, the more chance it's had to be cited. An article published this year is unlikely to have had chance to be cited.

Review articles

Several things get called reviews and all of them can turn up in databases.

Search limits in databases will let you refine your search, and you can often use these tools to include (or exclude) particular types of study.

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We're all familiar with things like film and music reviews: "This album is amazing! 5 stars!"

Articles like this occasionally show up in academic databases. You might even get a journal article reviewing another journal article.

Be alert to this. It's easy to waste time and energy on an article only to find that it's actually just a review of a different article.

But reviewing other literature as a whole is a big feature of the academic landscape, and one to be aware of.

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Literature reviews

Some types of article seek to find as much published research as possible on a topic and look for corroborations in the findings. The scale of such reviews can vary dramatically. Some form of literature review is a commonplace feature of most research articles, as well as in dissertations and theses: it's important to establish the background to the author's own research, and how that research relates to the work that has gone before. But literature reviews can be research projects in themselves, and some of the articles you may encounter will be such literature reviews.

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Systematic reviews

A lot of things get called systematic reviews without actually being systematic reviews. Simple literature reviews, for instance, might aspire to the badge. But systematic reviews do more than simply identify and summarise existing publications. High quality systematic reviews of complex questions can involve large teams of researchers and can take months or even years to complete.They will seek out all literature on a topic (potentially even unpublished evidence), assessing the quality of each study and synthesizing the findings in an effort to determine a corroborative "truth" of the matter.

Systematic reviews are particularly a feature of medicine. Let's imagine Medicine X has been trialed in 10 different studies. The systematic review will dig out all 10 studies, assess the quality of those studies (perhaps discarding any that were insufficiently rigorous), and collate the findings. In such a way it is possible to establish, with increased confidence, the efficacy (or not) of Medicine X.

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