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EDR 610: Developing a Research Strategy

1. Learning objectives

This is the first of three lessons for the "Finding Credible Sources" assignment. You will learn to:

  • Develop a research strategy and a keyword list for your project.
  • Learn techniques for broadening, narrowing, and refining your search.

2. Appropriate use of Wikipedia for academic research

While it is not appropriate to cite Wikipedia articles in your research project, Wikipedia can be a great place to start gathering information. Watch the short video below for tips on how best to use Wikipedia for college-level research projects. (Thanks to Michael Baird of the Cooperative Library Instruction Project for creating this video.)

3. Compiling keywords and connecting them together

Some topics are very specific, and therefore easy to search. For example, if you were researching a rare genetic disease like Mevalonate Kinase Deficiency,  you could simply enter that phrase in an article database to retrieve articles on that topic. Easy!

Most research topics are more complex and to find good articles you'll need to develop a more sophisticated strategy, such as this three step approach:

1) Divide your research topic into main concepts or keywords.

2) Brainstorm for synonyms and related terms and start listing them. If it helps, consult Wikipedia, a thesaurus, or your textbook to help you find synonyms and related terms.  For example, if you wanted to research the topic of Crisis counseling girls in a middle school setting you might have a list that looks like this:

Keyword 1 Keyword 2 Keyword 3
Crisis Counseling Middle School Female
Crisis Intervention Preteen Girl
Emergency Psychological Care Tween Young woman

3) Construct your search by connecting search terms together using AND, OR, and NOT (these are called Boolean operators). To learn more, watch the video below. (Thanks to Douglas College Library for creating this video.)

4. Using Boolean operators in a database search

Below is an example search in an article database. This search shows how synonyms and related terms were connected by typing OR between each of them. Main concepts were connected by selecting AND from the drop down list.



Here is a shorthand version showing what this search looks like without any search boxes:

("crisis counseling" OR "crisis intervention") AND (middle school OR preteen)

Notice how not all the concepts were used, sometimes it's best to start broad and then narrow down if you have too many results. When you use AND, you are restricting your search; that is, you are forcing the database to retrieve articles that have both main concepts. When you use OR, you are expanding your search; that is, you are telling the database to retrieve any of the word or phrase variations that you've entered into the search box.

5. Getting sophisticated with search refinements

The tips below will help you become a more effective and efficient searcher:

  • Phrase searching: Many databases recognize quotations around a phrase to mean that you only want to retrieve that exact phrase. Searching "middle school" (with quotes around it) will retrieve instances where those words appear in that order. Be careful about forcing the database to find an exact phrase. For example, you might think of "I.Q. test" as a phrase and search it with quotes around it, but then you would miss instances where authors didn't use that exact phrase but instead use intelligence test or intelligence testing or IQ test (without punctuation), etc.
  • Word shortening (a.k.a. truncation): Many databases recognize the use of an asterisk (*) to mean that you want to retrieve any possible ending to a word. So, if you search for counsel* you would retrieve counseling, counselor, or counsels.
  • Searching specific fields: If you do a search and get too many results, then sometimes a good strategy for narrowing your search is to limit some/all of your search terms to a more specific field, such as the article title field. The logic here is that if the main thrust of the article is about your keyword search term, then it's likely that term will show up in the title of the article.
  • Re-sorting your search results: Pay attention to how your results are sorted. Many databases default to delivering results showing the most recently published articles first. If there is an option to re-sort by relevance, it might be useful to look at your results that way (keeping in mind, of course, that you might get older articles rising to the top).

Note that most databases have a link to a help page that will show you what search features are supported and how sophisticated you can get with your searching.


6. Ask for advice and help

There are many ways to approach a research project, and a really smart idea is to ask for advice from a librarian. Librarians can help you find the best resources for your project and save you time. Email your librarian,Brittany Blanchard, for help: