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Preparing your search

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 databases 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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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, because Google is happy to ignore some bits of your search and guess about others.

But most 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.

Identify your key terms

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 replationship 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.

Framing your research question

In this session we look at how to come up with a workable research question with regard to available literature: is there enough information to provide a suitable background? What limits will you need to set? It's a session which is ideal for anyone about to start on a dissertation or thesis. We explore a range of different sources including academic, government and organisational literature.