Top ten search tips


Image c/o Chris Ford.

  1. Keywords are, well, key

Before you even start searching a database, think of your topic and write out all the words that you would associate with that topic. You’ll find it much easier if you spend a few minutes doing this first before you dive straight into your search.

  1. A good thesaurus is your friend…

A thesaurus was always something I used when I wanted my essays to sound ‘clever’ (I’m just glad I was never asked to explain what a particular word meant!). But they are also incredibly helpful for searching databases. We all use different words to express the same things, a thesaurus helps you to find alternative words that researchers may have used in their papers. When drawing up your search terms, use a thesaurus to find alternatives to the words you have come up with.

  1. Recognize that English isn’t one language…

American researchers may use slightly different terminology to their British counterparts. Be conscious of terms commonly used in America but not in the UK eg pacifier for dummy, private school for public school etc… (there’s a good list here)

  1. Start broad then refine…

Don’t start off your search by putting in either too many terms or by being too specific. Stick to a couple of terms and try to keep it fairly general as a starting point. In most databases you can begin to refine once you have your initial results. Starting off too narrow could lead to you missing out crucial articles that may help you in your literature review. So, always start broad and narrow down.

  1. Consider what other databases are relevant…

Most databases have a particular subject focus. PsycINFO is, of course, a psychology database and therefore contains full-text and abstracts for a large number of psychology journals. However, what if your research area touched on issues around education or clinical psychology or coaching? If it does, you might want to consider searching the British Education Index, or CINAHL or Business Source Premier*. Don’t think that because your subject area is psychology you should just stick to dedicated psychology databases. As with point 4 above, think broad!

* Guides to all these databases are available on the Databases and E-Journals web pages.

  1. Do not overlook abstract/non full-text databases

Don’t restrict yourself only to databases that contain full text. The amount of literature out there is vast and we cannot subscribe to everything online. Use large abstract databases such as Scopus to find articles that are relevant to your research topic, check to see if we have access to specific journals using Library Search (A-Z search) or, if we do not have access, you can always submit an inter-library loan request.

  1. Build a snowball…

References at the end of journal articles are incredibly useful. The same is true of the literature review section of an article. By scanning through the list of references you may discover other articles relevant to your research topic. The article you discover might then point to other relevant articles. This method is referred to as the snowball method as you start with one or two papers and soon build up a sizeable list simply by scanning references.

  1. Look out for key authors and journals…

When you start searching you may find the same authors or journals cropping up. If so, look for more papers by that author or spend some time looking through a particular journal. Authors may have a particular area of interest that they focus on so you may find other papers they have written are highly relevant. Likewise, you may also find the same journals appearing in results. If so, have a look at the journal more thoroughly – there may be many other articles that may not deal with your specific research area, but may touch upon it.

  1. There’s always Open Access!

Not all research articles require a login to access. There is an increasing effort to make more research Open Access (OA), making it as widely available as possible by circumnavigating usual publisher restrictions. Consequently, there may be articles published as OA that you would not find in publisher databases. CORE is an excellent resource that provides access to over 20m OA articles. It’s well worth having a look to see if there is anything is relevant. And don’t forget UEL’s repository – ROAR!

  1. If you need any further help…

Need help with your search strategies? Finding it difficult to find the articles you need? Not sure how to use a specific database? Then maybe I can help! If you do need any support, drop me a line and we can arrange a one-to-one session to discuss any difficulties you are having and see if we can resolve them. Let me know when you are available and I will do my best to ensure I am free to help. Otherwise, feel free to email, phone or tweet (although the latter probably best for short simple queries!)


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