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How to Write a Research Paper: Searching Tips

Step by step description of how to write a research paper

Still confused on how Boolean Operators work? Try out the Boolean Machine.

Advanced Searching Tips

Facets: Most databases will allow you to filter your results using "facets" (sometimes called limiters or refiners). These are the options (normally located on the right side) that allow you to only display results that meet certain criteria such as peer review, full text, year of publication, etc. Using facets can really help to cut down the number of results you get from a search.

Bibliography Scanning: When you find an article you like, look at the bibliography. There is a good chance that you will find other articles that would be helpful to your research.

Find Alternate Keywords: Often databases will list the keywords that are associated with the article you find. You can sometimes find this information in the abstract of the article as well. 

Boolean Operators:Use of Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) can sometimes be useful to help tie together or separate search terms. Use AND to only find articles that contain both of the keywords you're looking for, use OR to search for articles that use either one, and use NOT to eliminate a search term from your search. 

Truncation and Wildcards: Root words can have multiple endings Example: sun = suns, sunshine, sunny, sunlight. Likewise there are some words that are spelled differently, but mean the same thing.  Example:  color, colour

Keywords vs. Subject

Keywords are how you think about a subject. What words do you use to describe the topic?

Subjects are how a database thinks about a subject. You might think this word does not describe your topic, but the database does! 

Databases often have a thesaurus to help you learn their language. If not, look at a useful article in that database and use the subjects listed.

If you are looking for phrases, use quotations marks.  Then the database will search for it as a phrase and not just as words anywhere in the record

  • "North Dakota"
  • "University of Mary"
  • "right to life"

Good Search Terms

What's wrong with Googling your topic? Google can give you over 25,000,000 hits when you look for your topic.

Is a database better? Yes! It's easier to focus your search to your particular topic and limit your results to academic research.

First of all, start with a strategy:

  • Write the topic down in the form of a sentence or question
  • Identify the key concepts of the question
  • Try to think of at least one or two synonyms for each of these concepts
  • If the database you are going to use has a thesaurus (index of subject headings), go there and search for the concepts and synonyms you have thought of.  If related terms are suggested, review these. Then, possibly select and search a few
  • Search each of your concepts separately You can have 2 or more related terms in a concept
  • Use the Boolean operators (and, or, not) to combine the results that you get in the previous step.

Bad Search Terms

Not getting good search results? Check your search terms.

Terms not worth typing --
Words like:

  • Strategies
  • Effects
  • Benefits
  • Pros and cons

In general, articles discuss strategies, effects and benefits. It's more effective to think about specific benefits, strategies and outcomes you want to research.

  • Example: if your question is: 'What are some strategies for using manipulatives with third grade math students?'  Your keywords could be: manipulatives, third grade or elementary school, and mathematics or arithmetic. Notice that 'strategies' is not included.  You will still find articles that discuss strategies without that term in your search.