Plan: your search strategy

Once you’ve decided on what information you need, and the search tool you’re going to use, then you need to think about the way in which you’re going to search. There are some basic points to keep in mind when you are planning a search strategy regardless of what kind of search tool you are using. You will find that the more successful searches you do, the better your skills will become – like all activities, searching for information improves with practice.

1. Identify key terms and authors

Once you have chosen your search tool(s), you need to think about keywords for your given subject. If this was your topic:

‘What are the material properties of solid oxide fuel cells?’

You would need to break it down into separate keywords / subjects

  • material
  • properties
  • solid oxide fuel cells

You may also find it useful to do some preliminary reading in textbooks and encyclopaedias which will help you identify some keywords, and perhaps also key authors.

2. Boolean searching

Use search or Boolean operators to combine your terms:

  • AND

Example
bioactive and materials
Items containing BOTH words will now be searched for. Using ‘and’ will usually result in fewer but more relevant hits.

  • OR

Example
railway or train
Items containing EITHER word will now be searched for

  • Use parentheses to execute part of the search separately. This is used when you use the search operator OR.

Example
corrosion and (iron or steel)
Using brackets helps structure your search by breaking it down into sections. The following will now be searched for:
corrosion and iron
corrosion 
and steel
corrosion and iron and steel

  • Put quotation marks around a group of words to search for a phrase

Example
thermal barrier coatings

  • The term NOT’ is a stop word

Example
nanotubes not carbon
Any items referring to carbon nanotubes will not be retrieved.

Using truncation and wildcards

The easiest way to search for words that look similar is to use truncation, or a wildcard. The symbols will vary according to the database you are using (use the help page to find out what is the required symbol), but the principles are always the same.
By using the following symbols at the end of a word you can retrieve variant endings of a word.
– US
* – UK

Example
Contamina
will retrieve references containing the words:
contaminate, contaminates, contamination, contaminants, contaminated

  • Use a wildcard to replace a letter in the middle of a word,

Example
m?n
will retrieve references containing the words men or man.
Example
t?res
The terms tires (US spelling) or tyres (UK spelling) will now be searched for

3. Field restriction

Most databases allow you to search specific fields only. For instance, if you know that Ian Lean has written a useful paper on your subject, you may want to search for Lean and limit your search to the author field. Similarly, if you have retrieved far too many papers on your chosen topics, you may want to limit your search to title only.

4. Range limits

Some databases allow you to apply limits such as language, date of publication, and publication type. Again, if you have retrieved too many references, you may want to limit your search to a shorter date range, or to only retrieve review articles.

5. Example search

If you are interested in finding information about testing laminated composite plates for strength:

  • identify the key terms (and authors)
    • testing
    • laminated composite plates
    • strength
  • think of alternative words or phrases for your key terms
    • evaluating
    • composite laminated plates
    • reliability / stiffness
  • combine your terms using truncation and parentheses where required

(test* or evaluat*) and (laminated composite plates or composite laminated plates) and (strength or reliab* or stiff*)


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