Creating a thorough search strategy

Finding every possible article relevant to a particular research topic is something that researchers and graduate research students may need to do. Get some expert tips on how to go about it from Subject Librarian Tracey Whyte.

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When conducting research you may be wondering: Has this research been conducted previously? Have I reviewed all the literature on this discipline? Have I retrieved the most recent research conducted? Are there gaps in my research?

One way to resolve these questions is to plan a search strategy. A search strategy is a systematic method of searching for information. There are a few steps in this process.

Step 1
Prepare your search strategy by first brainstorming what you know about the topic already, defining terms or identifying particular resources to include.

Step 2
From the keywords you’ve hopefully identified already, think of similar words or phrases and group the similar terms together. This will broaden your search as you can choose from these alternative words if you can’t find information using the one term provided. Steps 1 and 2 are described in more detail in the ‘Developing a search strategy’ section of the Graduate Research Library guide.

Step 3
Next, test your search strategy across relevant Library databases or search tools. You can access Library databases from the Database Library guide or from the Databases tab on other subject Library guides. Highlight relevant resources and read the information about the resource from the abstract or summary and select relevant records to review more closely.

Step 4
Another useful tip to guide your searching is to identify the subject terms in the record. The subject terms are terms the database uses to describe what the article is about. You can replace your keywords with these subject headings to broaden or narrow your search. You may find alternative subject headings that are relevant so include those in your search too.

At right is an example of subject terms displayed in a complete record. This process of identifying terms, testing in a database and identifying subject headings relevant can be repeated until you have enough relevant information. Most search strategies use a combination of subject heading and keyword searching so use the method that retrieves the most relevant results.

Remember you may not be able to find all this information in one search, you might need to break down the components of the topic further into several searches or try a combination. There will be trial and error before you perfect your strategy.

Step 5
Lastly, you may also find it useful to create saved searches or alerts particularly if you will be viewing resources at another time or reusing the search. Login to the database or search tool to be able to save the search. Follow the database prompts and check the search tool or database Help screens for more information about how to do this. You can save and retrieve your searches as long as you sign in.

Need more information? The Library has also developed a comprehensive, interactive tutorial to guide you in the search process and don’t forget you can contact your subject librarian for advice about developing a systematic search strategy.

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