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Info Skills Road Trip: 3 - Searching: Search Strategy

Define your topic

It may seem obvious, but the first step is to make sure you understand the question. If there is more than one topic look at them closely, which one interests you? You need to identify the main concepts or keywords in your assignment topic/question to help you design your search strategy. We touched on this during your stay in Ideas Town.  Let's explore this a bit further.

First watch the "Search Smarter, Search Faster" video clip on the right.  This gives an overview of the process involved in finding the relevant information for an assignment or set task.  Note that once you get your keywords right the rest can fall into place. Watch out for the dangerous wildlife while on this tour.

Then have a look at the other boxes on this page and work through the example so you understand the process.

Boolean explained

When you use more than one keyword or phrase the search engine needs to know how to combine them in sets. You can do this with Boolean Operators AND, OR, and NOT. When these operators connect your keywords they either broaden or narrow your search.

 

AND: finds records that with all the keywords words specified. It is the most common operator and many search engines use it as a default setting. Strawberry AND Vanilla AND Chocolate retrieves all the records that contain Strawberry, Vanilla and Chocolate. It narrows your search.
OR: finds records that contain either or both of the words specified. It is useful for finding synonyms or where different words are of equal value in your search. Strawberry OR Chocolate OR Vanilla retrieves records that contain either or all Strawberry, Chocolate and Vanilla. It broadens your search. Be aware of spelling variations between British and American English and try alternatives in your search sets. For example: colour OR color.
NOT: finds records with only the first two of the three terms. (Strawberry OR Vanilla) NOT Chocolate retrieves records with Strawberry and/or Vanilla but excludes those records containing Chocolate. It narrows your search but should be used with care as it can easily exclude relevant results.
You can create more complex search strategies using parentheses. For example: Ice-cream AND (Chocolate OR Vanilla). Searching for exact phrases using Inverted commas can also provide a more accurate search result. For example: "chocolate ice-cream". Truncation symbols such as * and ? can be used to find words with the same root, so that plurals and other variations of a word are included. For example: A search for sweet* finds sweets, sweetener, sweeter etc

Develop Search Strategy

Developing a good search strategy involves the following steps:

  1. Identify the keywords/concepts in your assignment topic
  2. Identify possible synonyms
  3. Identify truncation and phrase searching opportunities
  4. Apply limits to your search
  5. Formulate and execute your search statement
  6. Evaluate your results and refine your search

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Here are three different search examples using the topic to the right. Developing a good search statement can save you time and bring the best sources to the top of your list. Developing a bad search strategy or none at all will often waste time you don't have.

The digital divide is a term that describes the gap in computer literacy between people of different socio-economic backgrounds. Describe some of the barriers that students from low socio-economic backgrounds can face when coming into the highly technological environment of higher education. Outline approaches that could be taken to reduce this disparity.
The statement below has many good features including the use of related terms (in brackets) and the use of phrase searching and truncation. This helps to make a more comprehensive search statement that can be further refined within a search tool (i.e. One Search, Google Scholar & select databases)

("higher education" OR "tertiary education") AND (SES OR "socio economic status") AND "digital divide" AND (student* OR learner*)
The statement below is not so good, the brackets are in the wrong place. This can totally change your search. Your results will return hits with either education or SES but not necessarily with both. As no effort has been made to expand the terms, there will be fewer results but they won't necessarily be the right ones. 

(education OR SES) AND internet use
In the example below no attempt has been made to identify the keywords or expand them to include synonyms and identify phrase searching possibilities. This is the worst type of search to do. You might find some resources, BUT you will miss plenty, and many search tools will not be able to recognise which terms are more important.

Describe some of the barriers that students from low socio-economic backgrounds can face when coming into the highly technological environment of higher education

Search smarter, search faster

Tip

Truncation * and phrase searching " " when used correctly  are 2 of the most powerful tools you will use when searching.

Identify keywords and synonyms

Before you can successfully search catalogues, databases and the Internet you will need to identify appropriate keywords. You can do this by first identifying the key concepts in your topic. 

Let's use the example below and determine the keywords words or concepts of great significance in your topic and synonyms A word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language, for example shut is a synonym of close we can use for searching.

EXAMPLE

The digital divide is a term that describes the gap in computer literacy between people of different socio-economic backgrounds. Describe some of the barriers that students from low socio-economic backgrounds can face when coming into the highly technological environment of higher education. Outline approaches that could be taken to reduce this disparity.

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