Put Your Detective Hat On: Search Techniques

Polly Harper, Subject Advisor for the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Library Services, introduces some techniques to help you find the information you need to support your research.

Image credit: Laura Mossteller via Text100

As a researcher, you will of course need to find the right kinds of information to support and inform your research. This may, however, seem like a somewhat daunting and time-intensive activity.

Do not fear, however! Planning a strategy for this process whilst using techniques to help refine your searching could make your life much easier. Here are some techniques which you might like to try.

  1. Put your detective hat on (I know you all have one!) and design your search strategy. This will help you to structure your search, whilst allowing you to keep track of your progress.You could ease yourself in by considering how you might go about finding information before booking, say, a holiday. Questions you might ask yourself may include: What country do I want to go to? How much do I want to spend?  Where do I want to stay?
    Apply this mentality (preferably without getting too distracted by the thought of sandy beaches!) to your search strategy. Think: what kind of information do I need? Does it need to be historic or very current? Will I need to use other libraries? Do I want a Jacuzzi? Oh wait… wrong search strategy!
  2. Exploit your key words: Think of synonyms and antonyms of key words in your research topic. Then broaden and narrow these. Don’t forget to ‘steal’ any useful key words that appear as you do your reading and then use all these in your search!
  3. Search Techniques: Using these key words, try some search techniques when using online databases or search engines. Techniques and functions will vary slightly dependent on the resource you are using, but there will always be a ‘help’ button or guide nearby providing you with searching tips similar to these:
  4. ‘Boolean’ searching – This is really just an overly fancy name for using ‘AND’, ‘OR’ and ‘NOT’ between your key words to better focus your search. Using ‘AND’ will narrow your search ‘OR’ will widen it and ‘NOT’ will exclude irrelevant search terms.
  5. Phrase searching: When looking for a particular phrase within your results, always use “quotation marks.”
  6. Truncation: With many databases you can use a truncation symbol which allows different endings (or beginnings) of a word to be picked up in your results. Many databases will use a ‘*’ or ’!’ to do this. For example, searching for  amplif*  will find results including : amplify, amplifies, amplified, amplifier, amplification, amplificatory.
  7. Proximity searching: Another clever-sounding name for something quite simple. Many databases will allow you to specify the proximity of key words to each other. For example, some will use the word ‘NEAR’ to do this. In Web of Science, searching Thermodynamic NEAR/5 “black hole” will find the word thermodynamic within 5 words of the phrase “black hole”.
  8. Brackets: Use brackets to construct the order in which your search is performed. For example, searching for (“artificial intelligence” OR AI) AND robot will ensure that results will contain either the phrase “artificial intelligence” or AI alongside the word robot.

Further guidance on these techniques is available in this document and don’t forget, your subject advisor will always be able to offer 1:1 support too.

The best way to feel confident and remember these techniques is to simply start using them!  Let us know in the comments below which search techniques you like to use.

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