Where am I going to find the information
Begin to test your topic by trying out some of your keywords in tools like
- the Library catalogue
- search engines
- subject gateways
Too many results?
You will have to think about how you can refine your search. Revisit your keywords. Can you think of more specific words? Have you picked up any new words when doing your preliminary searching that you could use as a better alternative? Can you combine keywords to produce more specific and relevant results?
Try using different Boolean operators
Try phrase searching, usually expressed in quotation marks.
Boolean operators allow you to combine your keywords in different ways in order to achieve the best set of results. The most common operators are AND, OR, NOT. AND and NOT are helpful in restricting the number of results you get.
Linking words with the AND operator tells the system that all of the words must appear in the record, although not necessarily together as in a phrase search. For example, linking the phrase 'student debt AND UK' means that your retrieved record(s) must contain all these words. Using a combination of phrase searching and single word searching together yields more specific results than the search Student AND Debt AND UK.
Phrase searching is particularly appropriate when searching the Internet.
Linking words with the NOT operator excludes certain records. You may be looking for a book on "student loans" but you don't want anything that covers the U.S. Be careful though, you may exclude a really good book on student loans because it also covers student loans in the United States.
Too few results?
The reverse side of the problem. Maybe you are being too specific and have to broaden out a bit. Revisit your mind tool exercise and see if there are any alternative words you can use.
If this doesn't work try another source.
Maybe you are doing research on animal testing. You put those keywords into the Library catalogue but find nothing, so you have to broaden your search. Think of new keywords. What does animal testing form a part of?
- Laboratory experiments
- Animal rights
Your new search might be for
animals AND ethics
"Animal rights" (a phrase search).
Remember "Boolean operators". The operatorOR might be used to broaden your results e.g. Linking words with the OR operator means that you do not mind whether you retrieve a book on say "Higher education" OR "Universities", either would be relevant to you. In practice you would then combine these words withAND to refine your search to student loans. Your search could look like this:
("Higher education" OR Universities) AND "student loans".
The brackets tell the database to perform the OR search first and combine the results with the phrase search "student loans".
Not all databases support parentheses (brackets), sometimes you just need to use advanced search options and fill out the boxes linked together with the appropriate Boolean operator.
Tip: Always take a look at any Help screens available to you when using electronic databases. Most databases rely on you typing in keywords to retrieve a set of results but they will not all operate in the same way. The way that you express Boolean operators will vary from one database to another.
For example, some may need you to connect your words with the Boolean operator AND, others will assume the space between the words is the AND operator, yet others may assume this to be a phrase search.
Also remember that the records you retrieve are driven by your keywords, so you may miss a record if you use the keyword UK and the record contains United Kingdom instead or even Britain or England. It's all about thinking up every keyword you can that might prove useful.
Check out the following links for further information on using Boolean operators to change your search results