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Searching for information: a practical guide

Sifting through results

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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Sticking some terms into a search box is the easy bit. Now you've got to deal with the results...

Sorting order

Your results aren't in some random order. They've been sorted in some way. Pay attention to how the results have been sorted, and change the sort order if it doesn't suit your needs.

Sorting controls are usually at the top right of your search results.

Date

It's quite common for databases to sort by date by default, usually newest items first. That's because you're often looking for the most up-to-date research.

If you were wanting to delve into the history of a subject and consider it consecutively, you could change the order to oldest first. You could combine this with a date filter.

Citations

Some larger databases will let you sort by the number of times a work has been cited by others in the database. You would generally order by highest first, to see the articles that have been cited the most.

Being cited a lot is generally an indication of a paper's importance. But it doesn't mean that it's necessarily a good paper. It might be that everyone who's citing it is saying that it's complete rubbish and that it smells of cabbage or something. They might be dismissing it as a bad example. They might be lauding it as brilliant. You'll have to read the citing articles to find out. The only thing that's for sure is that if a paper is being cited a lot it means that a lot of people are talking about it.

Citations are like snow

The longer something's been out in the snow, the more snow it will have on it. The same is true of citations. Bear in mind that new articles haven't had chance to be cited yet, because they're new. Nobody's had chance to write about something that only came out in the last few months. Bear in mind too that the older an article is, the more chance it's had to be cited by someone.

Harry Mercer's Algol sculpture on campus is two spheres made from cogs. These each stand on a concrete truncated pyramid near what is now James College. It's been snowing and the two spheres capped with snow look like Christmas Puddings. In the background are trees, the lake, and Central Hall. Harry Mercer's Algol sculpture after snowfall in 1991.
CC BY-NC-SA University of York.

Citations are like snowballs

If you cite something, you've made another reference to it. Now someone can find out about it either by finding the original article or by finding your article where you refer back to it. And if that someone then also cites that original work, that's yet another reference to it and another route by which people might find it. The more it appears in people's bibliographies, the more its fame increases, the more it appears in other people's bibliographies, until such time that it's no longer considered relevant.

Of course, if a paper doesn't get noticed and cited, it's not going to benefit form that snowball effect. But it could still be a brilliant paper. Maybe it was published at the wrong time or in the wrong journal and just got ignored. So an older paper with few citations may still be of some value. But it's probably not contributed much to the field so far and maybe it's moment to enter the conversation has passed.

Relevance

An internet search engine like Google will sort results by relevance. The pages the search engine determines are the best match for our search terms will be put at the top of the results.

Most academic databases will also be able to order results by relevance. The precise algorithm being used will vary, but the two main indicators of relevance are usually:

  • Terms appearing multiple times in the record;
  • Terms appearing in the title or subject headings.

More recent or more cited items may also be favoured, especially as a kind of tie-breaker.

If you've got a lot of results to sift through, sorting by relevance might help you find the papers that are particularly focused on the topic. But bear in mind that not everyone writing on the topic will necessarily be using the same terminology as you. A relevance sort might end up favouring items that regularly use your terminology while disadvantaging ones that reference your terminology once before going on to use different language. For instance, if you've searched for the term "United Kingdom", items that consistently spell out "United Kingdom" will potentially be considered more relevant than items that spell it out just once before going on to abbreviate it as "UK". The "UK" paper might mention the country a lot more but fall lower in the results. With a relevance search, then, the terms you're using in your search take on an extra level of importance.

Of course, if you've not already got "UK" in your "United Kingdom" search, you'd probably want to add it in using an OR search. But that raises the additional question of how advanced searches get treated by the ranking algorithm. For instance, does matching on multiple equivalent terms grant more favour than matching on only one? Is your first line of search more important than your second? Finer details like this probably won't matter too much, but they illustrate the comparative 'woolliness' of the relevance ranking. Sorting by relevance is useful, but you'll likely never be 100% sure exactly how that relevance is being calculated.

Other orders

There may also be a number of alphabetical sorts on various fields, be it the first author, the source (e.g. the journal the item was published in) or even the title.

Filters

Most databases have a range of filter controls, usually down the left-hand side of the results page, or sometimes down the right. These filters let you further reduce the list of results. They can be very handy for reducing a large number of results, but be careful not to limit your results arbitrarily: you'll want to have a good reason for removing something lest you lose something really useful.

Date / Year

There's usually the option to limit to a particular range of dates. Most of the time you're going to need to refer to recent literature (a lot of academic writing is essentially continuing a conversation, and you want to be replying to the thing that's just been said, not something that was said a while ago), so limiting to the last 10 years is quite a common approach. But be careful. How quick are things moving in your subject area? Some topics will have more research than others, so don't just cut things off arbitrarily. Was there a particular breakthrough that happened at some point that rendered everything before it redundant? Or do you actually need to refer to something old? Are you studying a particular period, for instance?

Subject

When an item is added to the database, a decision is made as to what subject area it falls into. So using this list can be handy if you've got a lot of out-there results from a discipline completely unrelated to yours. Bare in mind that topics can cross over multiple subject areas, so don't just keep your particular study subject and get rid of everything else — if you do that you might lose results that are still relevant to your needs.

There might also be a keyword filter. This might allow you to be even more nuanced about what you include and exclude, especially if you're only interested in particular studies or cohorts. Again, use with care: the keywords may be provided by the author rather than the database itself, so may be erratically applied.

If there's a source title filter, it could be worth looking at that too, if only to exclude any journals on topics that are way off the mark.

Author name

If you're after a particular author, then this filter is useful. But it's even more useful for excluding authors with names that match your search terms. Suppose you've searched for the word cheese... Maybe there's a Professor Janet Cheese who's really prolific in the field of astrophysics. Those results are no good to you, so you could exclude them here. But if her field of studies is food science (a fine case of nominative determinism) then you wouldn't want to exclude her. So be sure to double check!

Document type / Source type

There are a lot of different kinds of material that can end up in an academic database, and maybe not all of them will be relevant. Use this option to knock out types of publication you might not want, like notes or letters.

There might also be filters for things like publication stage or peer review that could be helpful for isolating particular levels of publication.

Language

If you can't read a particular language, you might want to remove it from your results. Of course, if you're doing some sort of comprehensive research project you'll have to be more careful, and if you're studying something particularly niche or referring to a particular region, you might not have much choice either. But in most cases you'll be expected to use English language sources, so this filter is a real gimme.

Other filters

Things like affiliation or sponsor can be useful if you're after research being conducted in a particular setting or funded in a particular way, but that's quite a specialist sort of need. If your search terms are hitting fields like this (a search for York bringing up "University of York", "York University", "York St John University", "New York University", etc.) here's a place where you can restrict that, but remember that one of the places most likely to be conducting research on York will be the University of York, so don't exclude your biggest hitter by accident!

Searching is an iterative process

Don't expect your finely crafted search to work first time.

Look at your results. Are they what you expected?

  • Maybe you've got too many results and you need to find a way to narrow things down further.
  • Maybe you've got too few results and you need to broaden your search out a bit more.
  • Maybe you've finding irrelevant results because your terms are used in multiple contexts.
  • Maybe you've mayed a spelling misake.

Chances are you're going to have to go back and edit your search to modify the terms you've used and improve your results. And you'll probably need to do that more than once.

Going through your results

What's a good number of results?

It depends...

If your research is particularly niche, you may be looking at less than 10 results. If it's a particularly broad topic then there might be hundreds. Generally speaking, anything from 50-250 would be manageable (a lot of databases will show 50 results per page, so 250 results would be five pages to sift through). Ultimately, though, you going to want to have whittled this number down to just the items you'll be citing in your work.

Sifting through the results

The chances are that most of the results aren't going to be relevant. Most databases will show the title and the first few lines of abstract on the results page, so you should be able to glance at each result and get a vague idea about what it is about.

If there's a checkbox at the side of a result, it means you can tick it and add it to a list of records you're interested in (there's often a button somewhere at the top of the results list to "add items to list" or similar). You could use this as a way of creating a list of just the items you want.

Another approach might be to open any results you think are useful in a background tab in your browser. You can generally do this by holding down Ctrl and clicking the title link. Doing it this way you can have several results open in tabs in your browser and go through each of them systematically without having to constantly go backwards and forwards from your results.

For any item you've opened, read through the abstract and other details to determine whether or not it's actually going to be useful. If you think it looks useful, that's when it's time to try to get hold of the full text.

Accessing texts

Find It @ YorkClicking Find It @ York in a database will check YorSearch to see if we have a copy of what you've found.

If we don't have it...

We can't afford to buy a copy of everything ever. In most cases that's not a problem because you probably don't need to read everything. But sometimes there'll be something you really want. If we don't have what you need, here are some options:

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