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Searching Techniques: Home

Searching Techniques

Effective Searching

To make the most efficient use of your time when carrying out research, it’s important to have a plan before starting.  This involves answering a few key questions -

What do I need to find out?
Although this sounds like an obvious question, it’s still a good idea to think about exactly what you need to find out about the topic you’re researching.  Establishing what you know already is a good first step – for example you might already know a lot about documentary photography, but you might not know how postmodern theorists have critiqued documentary photography. In this case, a search for ‘postmodernism and documentary photography’ would be more useful than one for ‘documentary photography’. 

How will I describe my research topic?
Once you know which aspect of a subject you need to research, you can start thinking about how you’re going to describe it. Coming up with keywords and phrases that accurately describe the topic you’re researching is a good way to make your research time effective (in this case the more targeted your search is, the better results you will get). Thinking of alternative keywords and strategies to use if you don’t find what you need will also save time if you plan in advance. 

Creating a mind map or list based on your research topic is an effective method for identifying how to describe it. For example, you might start out with ‘Grand Theft Auto and violence’ and through a process of expanding on that idea end up with ‘Grand Theft Auto, misogyny and gendered violence’ which might better describe the aspect of the subject that you’re interested in. Having alternative keywords and phrases is also a good idea, as different people will describe the same topic in different ways. So, if you’re researching ‘ethical fashion’ you might also want to look for ‘eco-friendly fashion’ or ‘ethical clothing’.

What if I have an essay question?
Your essay question could contain people, ideas or objects. It will likely ask you to explain, contrast, compare or discuss. This is different to deciding on a research topic.  Be sure to understand what is meant by these actions. Look back through your unit handbook to find readings that are relevant to the subject of the essay.

Where will I find the information?
Knowing where you’re going to look to find information is an important thing to consider – is LibrarySearch or Google or somewhere else the place where you’re most likely to find what you’re looking for? Think about how academic does the information need to be, how specific is the information you need and how new or recent is the subject you’re researching? Generally, if you’re looking for academic information (i.e. the kind of sources required at university level study), then LibrarySearch is where you should start.  If an aspect of the subject you’re researching only dates from the last 12 months, then finding good quality news sites via Google would be a good idea. Equally if you’re looking for information that doesn’t need to be particularly academic (i.e. reviews, basic facts like names and dates, or news reporting), then Google would be a suitable place to start looking.

How will I find the information?
Once you’ve chosen where you’re going to start your research, you can refer to the planning you did earlier. Using the keywords and phrases you thought of to describe your topic, you can try them in LibrarySearch, Google and see if the search results you get back match the topic you’re researching. If you’ve planned well and chosen the right place to research, you should find the information you need quickly. Sometimes a search plan doesn’t work out though, so this is when you can start to make use of alternative keywords, search filters, advanced search options in databases and advanced search terms. Most importantly, don’t worry - this is a natural and expected stage in any research.

Making a search more effective can be as simple as finding different words to describe a topic (for example changing ‘postmodernist architecture’ to ‘deconstructionist architecture’) - 

If a search is too specific, you can choose words with wider meanings, for example changing ‘fashion, sexualisation and the male gaze’ to ‘fashion and sexualisation’ - 

You could consider using an advanced search technique in a database’s default search box, like an ‘OR’ search which allows you to search for two aspects of a topic at the same time, e.g. ‘fashion and sexualisation OR fashion and the male gaze’ -

You could consider using a database that specialises in your subject like JSTOR or Art Full Text. These, and more, can be found using Databases A-Z. They give you the opportunity to make your search much more specific. You will see a drop down menu, usually to the side of the search box, found by clicking on Advanced Search. The words And, Or & Not help you to find what you need much more quickly. This is explained in the diagram below -

When you want to make a search more specific, you can use a phrase search to find an exact name or combination of words e.g. “star wars” rather than star wars. The inverted commas mean the search looks for your chosen words in the same combination, rather than anywhere in the text – e.g. ‘the movie star wars’ vs. ‘the star of the movie is Mark Hammill whose character fights in wars against the Empire’ -

Adding an AND is also an effective way of making a search more specific. Placing AND between two sets of keywords means that both are searched for at the same time and excluding results that only contain one of the sets of keywords – e.g. ‘star wars AND darth vader’ -

More specific still is the NOT search which allows you to exclude keywords and phrases from a search – e.g. ‘The Last Jedi NOT A New Hope’ -

Other options for improving searches include using the filters on LibrarySearch. The options on the left hand side of the catalogue allow you to filter by UCA campus library, material type, date of publication etc. In the articles search, you can specify material type (ebook, journal article, news etc.) and publication date, as well filtering by subject -


Term Example Result

Fashion AND ethical

Search results will include both keywords.

OR Fashion OR ethical

Search results will include one or both keywords.

NOT Fashion NOT ethical

Keywords after NOT will be excluded from results.

Hopefully if your research plan has worked, you’ll have found some useful sources.  However, you don’t have to read everything you find and sometimes there are very good reasons not to use a potential source. The main criteria for selecting which sources to use are -

  • Relevance – is the content of the source relevant to the topic you’re researching? How will it enhance your work?
  • Academic standard – if the source needs to be of an academic quality, is it suitable for degree-level research (e.g. is it a source aimed at secondary / high school students rather than undergraduates)? This is in part a question of authority.
  • Authority – who wrote the source? What are their qualifications and what expertise and knowledge are they bringing to the subject? At degree level you should mostly be looking for people with professional qualifications (i.e. a qualified journalist) and / or academic status (professors, researchers). 
  • Reliability – establishing the reliability of a source is important as some information can be accidentally or deliberately misleading. Establishing reliability involves asking the following questions - 
    • Is there bias present (is what you’re reading pushing a particular ideology or point of view)? 
    • Is the writing balanced and does it present different points of view (considering different sides to an issue is a good marker of balanced writing)? 
    • Is evidence provided (presenting evidence is important for establishing claims and supporting an argument)?
  • Currency (how new / old is it?) – if you need up to date information then you need to make sure you’re accessing recent sources.

Test your understanding with the Identifying and Evaluating Academic Sources Interactive Tutorial.

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