"Smart Searching" was written by Anna Fidgeon, California State University
It’s true. Searching a library catalog or database is not always as straightforward as Google. And sometimes, searching Google is frustrating because you get so many questionable results. So how can you make it easier to find strong sources for your paper? This video will show you some tactics to help get you on your way to being a Super Searcher!
Boolean Operators and Other Tricks
In the video, you saw a search done with Boolean Operators in the Academic Search Elite database, but many library databases work in a similar way.
Boolean Operators, are connector words that tell a database or search engine what kinds of results you want. Try thinking of Boolean Operators as Venn Diagrams where each circle represents one of your keywords and the dark area is your results:
Pretend like I’m doing a paper on poverty’s impact on malnutrition. Adding AND between my keywords will bring back only results using both my concepts. For example, “malnutrition AND poverty”. This will narrow my search.
I can get more results by brainstorming more keywords and adding OR between them. Adding OR will bring back results with either of your keywords. This works well when your keyword has synonyms or other related terms that won’t affect the context of the results. For example, “malnutrition OR hunger”.
NOT will eliminate results that include my keyword, even if it appears with another of my keywords. “Malnutrition NOT obesity” will eliminate results that talk about obesity, even if it’s about poverty’s effects on obesity.
Some search engines, such as Google, automatically do an OR search for you. That is, when you do a search for “ancient Greek sculptures”, it’s going to find results with all of your search terms, or only one or two of them (now you know why the search results on the 5th page of a Google search are hardly relevant). This is why Boolean Operators are less commonly used in Internet searching. That doesn’t mean you don’t have some control over your search. Try some of these tricks in both Google and databases to refine your search:
|Trick||What It Is||How & Where to Use It|
Truncation: will search for your keyword + any endings, like immigrant, immigration, immigrants, etc.
Quotation marks: will search for your keywords together as a phrase and only as a phrase
Works in Google & databases
Date range: searches for results from a particular date range
Works in Google
Site search: will search a particular website or domain
Works in Google
Author search: searches a particular author
Works in Google Scholar
I’m finding too much! I can’t find enough!
If you are overloaded or underloaded with search results, you might want to rethink your search strategy by brainstorming broader or narrower concepts. For example, if your topic for a 5-page paper is gay rights, do you think you could cover everything ever about gay rights in so few pages?
Most likely, with a topic as broad as gay rights, you probably want to focus your research a little more, for example, you might look at gay marriage. If you still feel like there’s too much on your topic to cover, focus in even more. For example, you could specifically look at Prop 8.
Additionally, be sure to try a few different database or Internet searches. You don’t want to get into the habit of using the same database for all your research, nor should you expect a search engine to hold all of the world’s information (it doesn’t). Your library probably subscribes to general databases (JSTOR, ProQuest), as well as subject databases. These subject databases can range from Psychology, to Engineering, to Fine Arts, to anything your University teaches. If you’re writing a paper for a psychology class, using a subject database will give you results from your discipline, so you don’t have to sort through results from other fields that may not be relevant to your assignment. Don’t limit yourself to what’s familiar—you might find what you’re looking for, or even something better, somewhere else.
Question Your Assignment
One way to think about your topic is to form it into a question you can answer with evidence from your research. It might help get you thinking about what kinds of search results you want and also help you focus your topic so you don’t have to search through all the literature on a very broad topic. Here are some examples:
It might seem frustrating when you have to keep adjusting your search, but that’s exactly what research is, it’s re-searching until you find what you’re looking for. If you feel really stuck, be sure to ask a librarian for help creating a search strategy.
Fidgeon, Anna. “Research Therapy: Be a Search Boss.” Cited at the Oviatt. Oviatt Library. 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 18 Jan. 2013.
Othman, Rosalina, and Nor Sahlawaty Halim. "Retrieval Features for Online Databases: Common, Unique, and Expected." Online Information Review 28.3 (2004): 200–10. Emerald Fulltext. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Quarton, Barbara. "Research Skills and the New Undergraduate." Journal of Instructional Psychology 30.2 (2003): 120–24. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Schaffer, Thomas. "Databases and Political Science Research." Online Information Review. 25.1 (2001): 47-53. ABI/INFORM Complete. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
Schestag, Lilli. “Get More.” We Are Librarians. 2 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.