5 Ways to Research Better
Improve your searching skills when conducting background research and literature reviews. This type of research can be intimidating. You may find thousands of results from your searches, or you may find only one or two. Equip yourself with these tools will make the task easier and keep you organized throughout the searching process. Your future self with thank you!
1. Track your searches.
Tracking your searches enables you to be more efficient. Avoid duplicating your searches by tracking where you’ve searched and the search terms you’ve used. To do this, I like to keep a Google Sheet or Excel Document open while I’m conducting my searches. Track the date, database, and search string you used, as well as facets (e.g. peer-reviewed articles or date restrictions) you selected. After searching, identify how many results you received and how many of these are relevant. If you are conducting a literature review, now is a good time to include citations of relevant results. I’ll come back to this later.
Tracking the total results and total relevant results of each search indicates how effective each search was. This can inform your future searches. If you are getting too many irrelevant results, try improving your search terms (see below for using a Thesaurus) or using Boolean Operators (keep reading).
This also helps you save effective searches. If a particular search string and facet combination resulted in relevant articles, use the same combination in a different database. While there may be some overlap, searching in multiple databases ensures that you are covering more journals than just searching one.
2. Utilize Database Thesauri
When searching in a database, one way relevant results are found is through the use of indexing. This means that someone read the article and selected keywords. In some databases, specific keywords are used and these words are stored in a thesaurus. For example, an article about public libraries may be indexed using the term “public librarianship”. While it still may turn up in a search using the phrase “public libraries”, using the indexed word gives you a better chance. It also shows you that other articles about similar topics (and likely relevant to your research) are likely indexed under “public librarianship”, informing you which search terms to use.
This is a particularly useful strategy when you aren’t sure which search terms to use or you aren’t getting relevant results using your search terms.
Each database uses thesauri differently, and so it is important to read the specific instructions of the thesaurus you are using. It takes practice, and sometimes the topic you are searching for isn’t adequately represented in the thesaurus. In this case, searching the thesaurus can hopefully show you some other terms to try.
3. Add Boolean Operators
There are numerous articles out there about how Boolean Operators work, such as this one from the University of Toronto Libraries. Basically, it is the use of AND, NOT, and OR in your searches.
- AND = you only want results that include both terms. E.g. searching cats AND dogs returns articles that contain both cats and dogs. This narrows your search.
- NOT = you only want results that do not include this term. E.g. searching cats NOT dogs returns articles about cats, but if dogs are included in the article, it will not be included in your results. This narrows your search.
- OR = you want results that include either cats or dogs or both. E.g. searching cats OR dogs will result in articles about either cats or dogs, or both. This broadens your search.
4. Pearl Growing
I love this search strategy. The idea is to take one good result and “grow” it into more. When you find the perfect article that addresses exactly what you are searching for, cherish it! This is your pearl. Read through the article and note other studies or scholars that inform this research. Then find those articles. You can also read through the References and follow up on any sources that look relevant.
As the title suggests, begin to “grow” these pearls. Continue to trace the research and theory that inform each article, finding additional relevant articles for your topic.
Research is a community and a conversation. Follow the conversation of research to find more relevant items to your search.
5. Cite As You Go
I cannot stress this enough. When you find a relevant article, download it, add it to your relevant folders, or however you store them — and create the reference immediately. Databases often have a citation tool, so make use of it (always check for accuracy), or write up the reference yourself. This will save you so much time during your literature review and writing stages of research.
If you want to be extra efficient, you can further group citations based on topic or year depending on the structure and purpose of your research project.
These are just a few tips that can take your searching to the next level by increasing your efficiency and effectiveness. Good luck!