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Searching for information: a practical guide

Search skills

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

When you're searching for academic information you're likely going to have to do multiple searches across different aspects of the topic you're researching. Depending on the level you're at, you may be able to get away with a relatively simple bit of searching on Google Scholar or you may have to perform several different searches on several different databases.

Some basic principles

When faced with a search box, it's useful to know:

  • ...what is being searched;
  • the words you enter are being interpreted;
  • ...whether there are any advanced techniques you can use;
  • the results are being sorted.

On the following pages we'll consider the above with a particular focus on academic sources and the sort of interfaces you might have to deal when researching a piece of academic writing.

An example

Take the search box on this page, for instance. It takes you to a Google search for and any search terms you've used. To return to our above prompts:

  • It's searching any pages that start that Google has managed to find and index (so not necessarily the whole site);
  • Google's algorithm is complicated but it will generally try to match the terms you entered against content on the page. It might then start guessing and bringing up pages with similar terms or terms that mean the same sort of thing, and if you've entered more than one word, it might start ignoring some of your search entirely;
  • One advanced technique it's using is the site: restriction. There may be others you could use;
  • The results are being ordered by 'relevance' based on how well the page matches your search term. Other factors like how recent the page was written may also come into play. Google's algorithm is elaborate and secret so we don't know precisely what's involved.

Some of that may seem obvious, but not all search engines will behave in the same way. And some may have additional options that let you precisely control how they work, to better enable you to find what you're looking for.

Keyword matching

At their simplest, most search boxes essentially work on a principle of 'keyword matching': if you type cat into a search box, the computer will search for the word "cat" and return any documents or pages that contain that word. Unlike with the index of a book, pages mentioning kittens or felines won't get returned.

It gets more complicated if you have two words: cat litter might only search for the phrase "cat litter" or it might search for the words "cat" and "litter" separately, depending on how the search engine has been programmed (its algorithm). So a file or page talking about "a cat having a litter of kittens" may or may not be among the results.

Most internet search engines (for instance Google) tend to have very advanced search algorithms which are very forgiving and which will second-guess what it is you're actually looking for. Sometimes they even seem to work better if you phrase your search as a question! This 'fuzzy' approach to searching can be useful, but it relies on the search engine making the right guesses (which won't always be the case!).

In academia we'll often find ourselves using far less sophisticated search engines which don't have anywhere near the same money and time invested into them as Google and so don't have the ability to guess what we're looking for. This does at least give us a lot more control over the search, and a lot more clarity about how that search is working. But we will have to be more deliberate and more careful about the search terms we use. We might even have to carry out multiple different searches before we find everything we need.

But that's fine. All searching is an iterative process: you try a search, you see what you get, and then you modify your search to see if you can get something closer to what you're after.

In this section of the Guide we'll break down the basic principles of database searching in more detail:

Preparing your search

How to translate your research question into a search so that the database can interpret your needs. It's all about picking out the important bits of the question and second-guessing the different ways in which different authors have expressed those concepts.

Advanced techniques

Most of the time we can get away with some pretty basic searching, but sometimes we'll need to be more systematic about the whole process, and academic databases often have a load of special tools we can use to formulate a very precise search that will hopefully get exactly what we're looking for.

The search box is only one part of the searching process. We also need to pay attention to the results we get. In the next section of this guide we'll look at our results in more detail.

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