Creating a search strategy

If you feel as if you spend your entire life trawling through databases, then this article is for you. Following on from her guide to searching for journal articles, here Helen Yendall provides essential advice on getting the most out of the databases you search.


Identify where to search

Your starting point will vary, depending on your discipline, but a good place to start identifying sources is the Library’s subject pages .

Also see Finding Journal Articles and Finding Books for advice on places to search.

Recording your research

Keeping good research records will mean you capture all relevant information and save repeating searches, so keep a record of:

  • Places you’ve looked
  • Search terms or criteria you used
  • Dates

Keeping records not only demonstrates your knowledge and understanding when you need it later to describe your approach but it can help avoid problems with plagiarism. You will probably identify new places to search as your thesis title evolves, which means you may return to this step over and over again.

You’ll find your own way of recording your research but a recommended method is to create an annotated bibliography.

Break down the concepts

Break down the concepts involved in your research into keywords, including:

  • Synonyms
  • broader terms
  • narrower terms

This should include spelling variants and abbreviations.

Tip: Draft out tables of your research concepts and various keywords as you go along.

Storing a search history on a database

If you want to store a search history on a database, you need to investigate the features, personal account functions and possibilities on offer with each database you search.

A detailed literature search is a long process. Setting up accounts for storing your search histories and getting email alerts as you go along could save you time in the long run.

When your results are too general

If you get too many results – or they’re too general – you’ll need to use some more specific keywords or add search criteria.
Some databases give the option to exclude an irrelevant term by using the combination term “NOT” or “AND NOT”. That should provide fewer, more relevant results.

You can often limit the fields in which you search for keywords. For example, you can choose to search only the titles or abstracts of articles rather than full texts – which can help you find fewer, more relevant results.

Alternative word endings and spellings

Some databases allow you to search for alternative word endings using truncation symbols. The most frequently used truncation symbols are the asterisk * and the dollar sign $. For example, you could use diabet* to find diabetes or diabetic.

Wildcards allow you to find different spellings of a word. This is especially useful for finding American/English variations and retrieving plurals. The most commonly used symbols for wildcards are ?, $, * and #. For example, “wom?n” will find “woman” or “women”; “p$ediatric” will find “paediatric” or “pediatric”.

Tip: Check the “searching hints and tips” within the database to find the symbols it uses for truncation and wildcards.

Getting more help

Find the details of the relevant Academic Support Librarian here. You can email, telephone or meet face-to-face with them to discuss any questions.

The Academic Support Librarians are experts on literature searching. They can advise you on the best ways to search, how to get the most out of the databases and how to find full-text articles – which will ultimately save you time and effort.

Image: Andrew Dunn, Wikicommons

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