There are seven basic steps in the search process:
Search engines will search for exactly what you type into them, including words like "the". You need to make sure you're only using the words that represent your key concepts.
1. Start by writing out your research question. For example:
What are the interpersonal skills accounting graduates need to be job ready in Australia?
2. Circle any limits in the question. Some examples of these are: geographical locations, periods in history, demographic groups, specific types of clinical tests, or the date range for the literature you are searching. These will help you to refine your search. Some of these limits will be used as keywords. Some will be filters in a database. Example:
What are the interpersonal skillsgraduates need to be job ready in ?
3. Next Highlight the words and phrases that represent the key concepts you are searching for information on, e.g.
What are the interpersonal skills graduates need to be job ready in ?
4. Arrange your keywords into a table or mind map and brainstorm alternatives including:
Finding alternative terms for your keywords is important because authors often use different words to mean the same thing, e.g. one article might say university, and another might say college. Including alternative terms in your search means that you won't miss useful results.
You won't start with a full table or mind map. Just add what you can and you will find more words to add as you work on your scoping searches.
Below is an example of a table for the question we analysed above.
Keywords from your search question
After you identify the key concepts you need to find information on, you can use these techniques to maximise the potential of each of the words and phrases:
Sometimes an idea is represented by a group of two or more words. In searching this is referred to as a phrase. To search for a phrase, use double quotation marks around the words. This tells the database to search for occurrences of this specific group of words in exactly this order.
Example: "interpersonal skills"
When there are various forms of a word, you can cut it back to the root word and add a truncation symbol. This creates a search for all the variations without having to type each one in separately. Truncation symbols vary slightly between databases, so use the 'Help' or 'Search Tips' options to check which one you need.
Example: account* will search for account, accountant, accounting, ...
There may be variations in the spelling of words, e.g. British English and American English have different spellings for some words. If you search with only one spelling, you will miss the relevant results with the alternate spelling. A wildcard character is a symbol that can be used to replace a letter within a word. Wildcard symbols vary slightly between databases, so use the 'Help' or 'Search Tips' options to check which one you need.
Example: organi?ation will search for both organisation and organization.
Check how the database you are using searches for single/plural versions of keywords - this can have a huge impact on your results, as some databases will automatically search for the plural version of a singular term, but not the reverse (this information is usually included under 'Help' or 'Search Tips').
Keywords can be formatted and combined into searches using specific words and symbols. You can use these techniques to maximise the effectiveness of your searches and get better quality results.
AND is used to combine words for different concepts. It tells the database to find results where all the of the words appear. It narrows your search.
Example: "interpersonal skills" AND accountants
OR is used to add synonyms or similar concepts to the search. It tells the database to find results where one of the words or phrases appears. It broadens your search.
Example: "job ready" OR "work ready" OR employable
NOT is used to exclude terms you don't want to find. It narrows your search.
Example: accounting NOT tax
Brackets () are used when you are using both AND and OR in a basic search. Because there is only one search box in a basic search, brackets are needed to group the synonyms that are combined using OR. The other words that have been combined with AND go outside the brackets. This tells the database to find at least one of the words or phrases from within the brackets as well as all of the words that are outside the brackets. It is a way of doing multiple searches at the same time.
Example: ("job ready" OR "work ready" OR employable) AND "interpersonal skills" AND accountants
Demonstration: You may find it easier to understand how using AND, OR and NOT work by watching them is use.
Most databases provide a range of options which enable you to refine your search results by manipulating specific elements of your search. Each database has it's own options for refining the search, the following are common to most databases:
There are basic limits that usually just require you to tick a checkbox, or select/enter dates. These are usually near the top of the menu and include:
Some databases allow you to limit your search to a specific type of document, e.g:
Each item in a database has a record that contains information about it, e.g. who the author's are, which year it was published in, the title etc. All of this information is put into specific fields. You can use theses fields to build much more accurate searches. If you go to the Advanced Search you'll find a dropdown list of available fields next to each search box. Enter your words into the box and select the field you want to search for them in. Examples of searchable fields include:
Subject Terms, also known as subject headings, are set terms used to group documents by topic in databases. You can use these in addition to you keywords to refine your search, because multiple keywords will come under the same subject heading.
You might find them:
Health and medical disciplines use specialist Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). These are organised in a structured hierarchy of headings and subheadings. If you are studying health and medical sciences, you will also need to think about the MeSH terms for your keywords. The Using Health and Medical Sciences guide has information on how to do this.
Below is a video, produced by Curtin University, that demonstrates searching with keywords and searching with subject terms so you can see the difference in results.
You need to review your search results both during, and after, your searches. This helps to ensure that your results are relevant and comprehensive.
During your searches:
After your searches:
Consider your results as a whole. If you have some familiarity with the topic, you may be able to identify whether well-known researchers are represented in your results, or research that you were already aware of (if not, why not?). Consider whether the results appear to be a fair representation of what you would have expected to find, or whether there are elements missing.
Databases are designed to be mined for information, so make the most of them and get as much information as you can from your search results: