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Durham University

University Library

Planning a Search Strategy

Taking a few moments to think about what information you need, and how you are going to look for it, can save you a lot of wasted effort. It can also help you to find more relevant results which can enhance the quality of your assignment or research. Follow the steps below to create a successful search strategy:

1) Select appropriate information resources to use

Think about what kind of information you need:

  • an overview of a new topic? Encyclopaedias or review articles in journals can help.
  • the latest academic research? Recent journal articles will be more up-to-date than books.
  • an historical perspective? Books can set out the development of a subject area.
  • media reports? Newspaper articles present contemporary perspectives.
  • official reports? British or international government reports, or those of other organisations such as the United Nations or the National Health Service.

Use the right "finding aid" to cover this type of information:

  • Library Catalogue(s) for books, journals, reports, videos, etc
  • Databases such as Web of Science for journal articles and conference proceedings
  • Databases such as Nexis UK for newspapers

2) Choose appropriate Keywords

Look at your assignment title or research topic and underline the key words or phrases. For example: Discuss the relationship between poverty and teenage crime.These concepts will be your basic search terms. Write these terms as column headings across a page.

3) Definitions
If you are not sure of the meanings of the words then use dictionaries and/or encyclopaedias to check. Remember the Library has a number of subject specific reference works.

4) Synonyms and alternative spelling

Are there other words or phrases which mean the same or are related to your basic terms? Using a dictionary or thesaurus can help with this. Also, think about differences between British and American spellings. e.g. behaviour or behavior; oestrogen or estrogen. Some databases do not search for both spellings automatically. Write any alternative terms in the columns below your original search terms.

5) Boolean operators

Use Boolean Operators to combine your search terms logically. The most commonly used operators are AND and OR.

AND will find only references where both your search terms appear e.g. poverty AND teenage crime. This will help to narrow your search down to more relevant items. Write AND across each column

OR will find references which contain either one or both terms e.g. teenager OR youth. This will broaden your search and help you find references with synonyms or related terms. Write OR down each column between each term.

You should now have a search strategy grid which shows clearly which terms you need to put together with AND and which with OR to get the most relevant results. (See example)