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Searching for information: a practical guide

Google Scholar

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a Google search engine that indexes academic-type material, so it's a great starting point for any academic search.

It indexes academic texts such as peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports, and will retrieve information from academic publishers, professional societies, preprint repositories and universities, as well as electronic journal articles. In many cases it indexes the full text of items, rather than merely bibliographic information, although the full text will not necessarily be available.

The important bits of Google Scholar

There's a lot of tempting looking links on a Google Scholar results page and you might want to follow them expecting it to work like normal Google. But they'll usually just take you to a paywall. The actual important stuff is elsewhere.

Let's take a look at the results page for a typical Google Scholar search:

'Options' hamburger menu

Contains Advanced search and Settings. Use the latter to set up Library links.

Sign in

Sign into Google with your University account and have Scholar remember items saved to My library.

Side menu

Apply limits to your search, change the way it's sorted, and set up alerts. See the sections on sifting through results for more on this sort of thing.

Full text links

If there's a full text available there'll be a link shown on the right-hand side. Add more sources (including the University Library) in Settings > Library links.

If you're on campus, the "Full Text @ York" links will appear automatically, but otherwise you'll need to set them up:

  • Make sure you're signed into Google Scholar (top right);
  • From the hamburger menu button () in the top left of the screen choose Settings;
  • From the Settings menu, select Library links;
  • Search in the search box for University of York (accept no similarly named substitutes!);
  • Check the checkbox for University of York – Full Text @ York
  • Select Save.

Once you've done that, follow the links to check YorSearch and see if the Library has a copy of what you've found.

Additional features

Under the hamburger menu () you'll find Advanced search which gives you a lot more control over your search. We'll look in more depth at features like this in our advanced search section.

The ☆ Save buttons beneath each result work with the ★ My Library feature at the top right and are handy for managing your reading or for exporting several results to reference management software.

For any article you can also see Related articles (though quite how that's determined is up to Google), while the Cited by button on each result lets you see what other articles indexed in Google Scholar have cited this one (another useful way to find related articles).

For the more hard-core, there's various specialist features to exploit, including:

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Google Scholar's "Advanced search"

Under the hamburger menu () in Google Scholar you'll find Advanced search which gives you a lot more control over your search.

Let's take a look at each of the options:

With all of the words

This is effectively the default search mode in Google Scholar: an article must contain all of the words in this box. A search for dogs cats mice would find anything that mentioned all three animals somewhere in the text, but if an article only mentioned dogs and cats (no mice) it shouldn't be included in the results.

dogs cats mice

This style of searching is what's called implicit AND because it's searching for articles that contain dogs and cats and mice.

With the exact phrase

In the previous search, our terms could appear anywhere in the document. With this one they have to appear as written. A search in this box for ah good the sea would return only one of the following snippets (all of which would be returned by the previous search):

ah good ..ah good / God knows ah good / please recognize me.! / log of the sea tells it.. / log of the land tells it..

- Clarke, L. (c.1974). Where Hurricane.

Are you in salt? We have been looking all over the place for human beings. Ah good the sea. Professor of non-existence, the body is evidence of the spirit. The natural key.

- Burroughs, W. (1976). It Belongs to the Cucumbers: On the Subject of Raudive’s Tape Voices.

In my opinion, a good bit of Emily Dickinson's poetry is the stanza "Rowing in Eden – / Ahthe Sea! / Might I but moor – / Tonight – / In thee!" from "Wild nights - Wild nights!" (1861).

- University of York (2022). Searching for information: a practical guide.

"ah good the sea"

The above is what you'll see in the search box once you've run the search. You can perform this kind of search without using the "Advanced search" form by just putting your exact phrase in "double quotes like this". This technique is called phrase searching and the double quotes are what we'd call an operator: something which when used in a search box performs a specific special task.

With at least one of the words

This box will return items that mention any of the entered words. A search in this box for whale dolphin orca narwhal will find items where at least one of those words appears:

whale OR dolphin OR orca OR narwhal

Once you've run the search, you'll see the above in your search box — your terms joined with the OR operator. The same operator works in a normal Google search, and in many other search engines and databases.

Use this technique to search for alternate ways of expressing a concept. For instance, a useful search might be orca OR "killer whale" OR orcas OR "killer whales".

Without the words

Documents that mention the words you put in this box will be excluded from your results. If you had leonardo in any of the first boxes and dicaprio in this box you will get matches for any document mentioning leonardo so long as it doesn't also mention dicaprio:

Leonardo DiCaprio image CC BY-SA Christopher William Adach.

leonardo -dicaprio

Once you've run the search, you'll get the above in the search box. Here the minus sign - in front of "dicaprio" is serving as what we might call a NOT operator: leonardo NOT dicaprio. Most databases will actually use the word NOT for this, rather than the minus sign, but the minus sign remains common in internet search engines like Google.

If you were searching for information about York but kept getting results about New York, you could do a search for york -"new york" and this will filter out any documents mentioning "New York". But be careful... maybe a really good article about York also mentions New York somewhere in it.

The other options

The rest of the options are a little more nuanced. In most cases they're ways in which you can limit your search...

Where my words occur

Google Scholar is often able to search the full text of an article, but that can mean you get an awful lot of results. You might therefore want to limit the target of your searching to just the title of an article. Article titles are usually very descriptive so this can be a good way of making sure the article has your search terms as its focus. But obviously there are risks to this approach: a smaller target is harder to hit, and not all titles will be as descriptive as you'd like.

Return articles authored by

Maybe you're interested in a specific author. You can use this box to search for authors by name, and by combining this field with other boxes on the 'Advanced search' screen you can even search within a particular author's body of work.

Return articles published in

It may be that you're only interested in articles published in a specific journal, or in a journal with particular words in the title. If that's the case then this is the box for you!

Return articles dated between

Sometimes you'll only be interested in articles from a specific period in time — perhaps you just want recent articles, or perhaps you're after articles from a particular point in the past. In these boxes you can set a date range for your search.

Going beyond Google Scholar

Most of the above examples can also be used in other databases too...