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Searching for information: a practical guide

Preparing your search

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.
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Searching is a trial-and-error process: you try some search terms, you see what happens, then you try changing your search terms to see if it improves anything.

But where do you start? What terms do you try first?

Breaking down your research question

A police box with a stripy scarf trapped in the door

If you're searching for information, you inevitably have a research question you need to fulfil. It could be What time is the train? or What's the latest Doctor Who news?, or you could be starting with something a little more academic like an essay title.

Sticking the whole thing into a search box might get you some reasonable results in Google, and even Google Scholar, because Google and Google Scholar are using sophisticated search algorithms that are happy to ignore some bits of your search and guess about others.

Most other academic resources aren't this presumptuous. They lack the investment in clever search algorithms, but they're also performing a different sort of task to an internet search engine.

Because most academic databases are only searching small amounts of information about the journal articles they're indexing (at the most an abstract summary; hardly ever a full text) we need to be precise in our searching to get the results we need. The database won't guess and it won't ignore, so all of the terms we use in our search are going to have to match against things in the database — otherwise we'll get 0 results.

Identify your key termsExercise

Your research question will contain a lot of words you don't actually need for your search. Here's an example (select each word to see its usefulness):

"Explore the precarious relationship between privacy, freedom of expression, and social media."

explore

This word is an instruction to you rather than a term that is likely to appear in the literature. Including 'explore' in your search will artificially reduce your results by excluding relevant items that don't include the word 'explore'. It therefore makes sense to leave the word 'explore' out of your search.

the

'the' is a very common word, and will likely turn up in most of your results. Searching for it serves no useful purpose. You should therefore save yourself some typing and leave it out of your search.

precarious

This is a leading term, included in the question to instruct your approach. 'Precarious' is a value judgement which you will explore in your work, and you will need to consider a range of different viewpoints to address this effectively. Including 'precarious' in your search will get in the way of your explorations by returning only results from a very narrow point of view.

relationship

We need to 'explore' this, but do we need to search for it? An article that mentions privacy, freedom of expression, and social media, is more-than-likely relating those concepts, whether it mentions the word 'relationship' or not. Including 'relationship' in your search is therefore probably going to exclude relevant results, so leave it out.

between

Like the words before it, 'between' forms part of an instructional phrase within this 'question'. But it's an implicit term: we're inevitably making connections between the concepts we're researching; there's nothing essential about the word 'between', and stating it outright just reduces our pool of results artificially.

privacy

The concept of 'privacy' is essential to this question. We need to find results addressing 'privacy'. Without them, we can't answer the question.

freedom

The concept of 'freedom of expression' is essential to this question, so we need to consider those three words together. We'll have to incorporate this concept in our search in order to find the results we need.

of

The concept of 'freedom of expression' is essential to this question, so we need to consider those three words together. We'll have to incorporate this concept in our search in order to find the results we need.

expression

The concept of 'freedom of expression' is essential to this question, so we need to consider those three words together. We'll have to incorporate this concept in our search in order to find the results we need.

and

As we'll explore later, 'and' has a specific use in most databases, so we have to be careful if we want to include it. But 'and' is also a very common word, and unless we were researching something like the frequency of the use of the word 'and', we really have no need to be searching for it in and of itself.

social

For this question we definitely need to find results that address the concept of 'social media'.

media

For this question we definitely need to find results that address the concept of 'social media'.

Ultimately, there are just three parts of this question that are actually worth putting into a search. The rest can just guide us.

These, then, are our key concepts: privacy, freedom of expression, and social media.

Alternate terms

When we're searching a database we need to be second-guessing the terminology (or terminologies) being used by the authors of the articles we're looking for. And we don't normally have the luxury of the full text to search against; just the title, abstract, and maybe a few keywords (which may also have been supplied by the authors).


It's good but it's not right...Exercise

Let's consider this idea by way of an abstract example...

Click on the image below to reveal a part of the picture:


This is a very visual exercise that relies on your ability to describe an image as it is revealed, so describing it back at you like this is obviously a bit of a spoiler, but let's give it a go! We've got a picture covered by nine tiles. When the bottom-left tile is removed we can see what seem to be crates of oranges or similar citrus fruit; when the middle tile is removed we can see some punnets of tomatoes too. When the whole thing is revealed we've got a market stall full of different fruit and veg.
CC BY-SA 2.0: risastla

What can you see in the revealed square?

Think about how you might describe what you're seeing to someone who can't see it.

What we're seeing here is a tiny portion of the full image. It's a bit like like how when we're searching a bibliographic database we aren't seeing the full text; we're just seeing things like the title, abstract, and keywords.

What search terms might you use to find this image in a database?

Click on the image again to reveal a bit more of the picture.

Has what you can see changed?

Revealing more of the picture changes our understanding of what we can see, and the terms we might use.

What search terms might you use for this image now?

Click on the image again to reveal the whole thing.

Now we can see the whole image, how has our terminology changed?

At first we might have described oranges. Or were they satsumas, tangerines, mandarins, clementines...? Now it looks like they might've been blood oranges. Is that the same thing?

With the second portion we introduced tomatoes, so perhaps we broadened our terminology: fruit and vegetables, perhaps?

Now we have a whole market stall full of fruit and veg. We might describe it in general terms, or we might consider getting into the specific fruit and veg on show. Maybe we need to do both.

If we were searching our metaphorical database for kiwis or pineapples, only now, with the 'full text', would our search bear fruit.

So we have to really think imaginatively about the terms we use when searching these databases.

How might we find a pineapple when all that's in the index is the tiny corner with the oranges? By searching for a broader term like fruit? Or market stall? Or greengrocers? Or grocers? Or costermongers? So much depends on what's in that catalogue record in the database and how well it summarises the whole article.

And so much, of course, depends on the words being used in that record.


There are so many ways to express the same thing...

I'm writing this sentence using a computer (or is it a PC?) at a desk (or is it a table?) on a damp (or wet, or soggy) day in autumn (or is it fall?).

There are many ways of expressing the same idea. Multifarious means exist to denote essentially identical concepts. Something can be described using various different words. And this is a problem when we're searching for something.

Synonyms

If I'm after papers on the subject of computer games, I might also be happy to find articles that mention video games or gaming or any number of other variations on that. These terms are synonyms — they essentially mean the same thing as each other.

Hyponyms

I might also be interested in articles that talk about specific games like Tetris or Animal Crossing or Fortnite or whatever... These are hyponyms: a narrower subset of a broader term. It's possible that someone has written about the Final Fantasy series without the title or abstract ever using the term "computer game". Likewise, games manufacturers (Nintendo, Rockstar Games...), genres (platform game, first-person shooter...), or even specific programmers/designers (Ron Gilbert, Peter Molyneux...). There might be particular technical terms or jargon that could help (or hinder) your search.

Hypernyms

Likewise it might be worth looking for broader terms like software or games, depending on the focus of the question. These are called hypernyms which is very nearly the same word as its opposite. Speaking of which...

Antonyms

Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning. If I was researching freedom of expression, for instance, I might find useful material that is talking about censorship.

Polysemes

Sometimes words can have more than one meaning (polysemy), so you'll need to consider these if you're to avoid getting a load of irrelevant results. Take gaming for instance: it needn't be computer gaming; in fact it could be "gaming the system". A search for Animal Crossing will get results about road crossings for animals, and who knows what zoological experiments. Orange might get you fruit, a colour, a defunct telecoms company, a royal house, a revolution, a song... An article on football is potentially going to be quite different depending on where the author is from. And while you could swap out football for soccer, that will probably lose you relevant results that don't mention that synonym. Maybe you could try other relevant terms to help narrow it down, depending on the precise focus of what you're trying to find.

This geographical variation is particularly important to consider. Academic literature is international, and within English alone there are all manner of variations: "put your pants in the boot" means very different things at either side of the Atlantic, for instance! Watch out, too, for differences in spelling: color versus colour, analyze versus analyse etc...

Historical variation

Things may have had different names in the past to what they have now: nobody talked about land-lines before mobile phones came along, the European Union used to be the European Economic Community, and Kit-Kats were made by Rowntrees not Nestlé. Words sometimes shift their meaning too: a search for gay is going to get you very different things the further back you go. Most of the time we'll probably only be looking for items from the last decade or so, so this sort of change is unlikely to be as relevant, but if you're working with historical material it will definitely be something you'll need to consider.

Inflection

Inflection is adding different endings (or sometimes even beginnings) to words. As I write this sentence my writing is using different inflections, and when it is written I will know that I wrote it because nobody else writes such well-writ sentences.

If I searched for the word orange I might fail to find an article that talks only of oranges plural. Some databases will be clever enough to consider the plural (an alogrithmic process called lemmatisation), but some are not even that smart, and certainly more complicated inflections will cause problems.

Give it a goExercise

A pink cartoon triceratops
(not a thesaurus)

If you've got a question you're working on, we've got a virtual piece of paper you could use to think about the different terms you might try.

You can use a thesaurus (or even just a Google search) to help you find possible alternate terms.

Some example searchesExercise

Let's try using some different search terms with the records in a small catalogue, to see how they work in practice.

Here are a few possible searches against a database made up of six records:

Click the search terms below to see which of the following records they find


cat
dog
cats
dogs
kitten
canine
behaviour
behavior
Title: The story of the little kitten.
Author: Whisker, Alice
Subject headings: Children’s fiction
Abstract: Little Jenny finds a kitten in a box and promises to look after it if it can tell her a story.
Title: Domestic pets : a social history.
Author: Bensaïd, Lalita (ed.)
Subject headings: Pets; History
Abstract: This book collates various writings on human / animal association through history, this book offers a comprehensive exploration of the social development of domestication for non-livestock purposes. Essays examine collaborative practices in hunting and herding, pet therapy, pets and status, behaviour control, animals as entertainment, and the role of the domestic animal in religion.
Title: The bumper book of 17th century doggerel verse.
Author: Leavy, Martin (ed.)
Subject headings: 17th century poetry; British poetry
Abstract: A catalogue of comic, trivial, bawdy and occasionally downright awful verse from a range of British sources in the 17th century, with particular focus on the English Civil War period.
Title: Ant and Dec : the SM:TV years.
Author: Schama, Simon
Subject headings: Biography; Children’s television; British television
Abstract: The second part of a serialised biography of Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly by award-winning historian Simon Schama (The Embarrassment of Riches, A History of Britain, Rough Crossings) focuses on their work with Cat Deeley on the Saturday morning magazine show SM:TV Live.
Title: A study of pack behaviors among dogs of different breeds.
Author: Rapsat, Andre; Pericoli, Anita; Lopez, Catarina
Subject headings: Dogs; Animal behavior; Canine behavior
Abstract: This study examines the pack behaviors exhibited by five mixed-breed groups of dogs, and is intended to provide a direct comparison with the authors’ previous study of single-breed groups (Rapsat, Pericoli and Lopez, 2012).
Title: Stressed dog : the library tail.
Author: Collins, Millicent
Subject headings: Children’s fiction; Dogs
Abstract: Hancock Hound is frustrated when he finds the last page missing from his library book. He and Crafty Cat set off to the library to track it down. Based on the TV cartoon series.
Key:
Successful match
Potentially relevant but missed by the search
Missed but probably not relevant

cat finds a book about And and Dec and one of the children's books, but misses the other children's book and a book about domestic pets that might be relevant.

dog finds the "Stressed dog" book but not the book about pets and the book about pack behaviours in dogs.

There are no results for cats plural.

dogs finds the book about pack behaviours but misses the "Stressed dog" book and the book about domestic pets.

The only match for kitten is the forst of the children's books. But perhaps "Domestic pets" would also have content about kittens.

canine gets the pack behaviours book but not "Domestic pets" or "Stressed dog".

behaviour finds "Domestic pets" but not "A study of pack behaviors" which uses the American spelling.

behavior gets "A study of pack behaviors" thanks to its subject headings, but doesn't find "Domestic pets" despite the British spelling of behaviour appearing in the abstract.

Tip

When you're searching, take a look at the results you get: they might suggest yet more terms you could try.

Using our keywords

Having identified the key parts of our research question, and alternate ways of expressing them, how do we actually use them in a search?

Try putting some terms into the search box and seeing what happens.

Most databases use a search algorithm called "implicit AND" — they will search for items where all of the terms in the search box are found in the record. If we searched for privacy freedom of expression social media we'd only get results that included the words privacy AND freedom AND of AND expression AND social AND media. A record that matched all but one of those words would not come through to our results.

Tip

Google Scholar is less fussy: it has a much more nuanced algorithm and will happily ignore some things if it thinks it will still be something like what you're after.

This "implicit AND" thing means it's not a good idea to put a load of terms that mean the same thing into the one search. A search for cat cats kitten kittens pussy pussies moggy moggies feline felines is not going to be a fruitful one. Chances are the only result a search like that is going to find is a thesaurus!

With that in mind you're probably going to need to do multiple searches with different combinations of terms and different sets of results. That, or you could do some advanced searching...

Our Academic writing Practical Guide has in-depth support on all aspects of academic writing, including understanding the question and planning your work:

Finding the right reading

When you do a Google search or a search in the library, you will get a massive reading list. How do you choose which are the best texts? Who do you trust? Where do you get the most reliable data from? In this session you will learn how to select the most appropriate reading for the task you have to complete.

More on planning your search

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...

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