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The Research Process

A guide to help develop skills in how to develop a research question and find resources to support your thesis.

Identify Search Terms

Entering a sentence in a library database search bar most likely will NOT result in relevant results. Library databases operate on words rather than sentences. Using keywords is a good starting point.

Develop keywords by listing the main words in your topic.

Here is an example research topic:  Does switching to a low-carbohydrate diet help women who have irritable bowel syndrome?

The keywords in this question are:

  • low-carbohydrate diet
  • women
  • irritable bowel syndrome

A keyword search might be: low-carbohydrate diet AND women AND irritable bowel syndrome

But there are many other words that can be substituted for these, for example:

  • low-carbohydrate diet = simple carbohydrate diet = carbohydrate restricted diet = specific carbohydrate diet = ketogenic diet
  • women = female = adult female
  • irritable bowel syndrome = inflammatory bowel disease = mucous colitis = spastic colon = gastrointestinal disease

You may want to search using one keyword at a time and then add keywords with AND to focus the search more narrowly. It's helpful to keep a list of your search words and try different combinations of them. Once you find some results with your keyword searches, look at the other words or subject terms associated with the article and use those in subsequent searching.

Keywords and Subject Searching

Keyword Searching:

Keyword searching uses any words you can think of that best describe your topic. Keyword searches will be broad: title, source and contents of each item will be searched for your keyword(s). This is the reason your searches may retrieve too many, too few, or completely irrelevant items. That is why using this method is a good way to start your research process. A keyword search can be the first step on the way to finding subject headings appropriate to your topic and using them to get more relevant results.

Subject Searching:

Subject searching uses subject headings that come from a predetermined list of possible terms and reflect the content of the item. Most academic libraries use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) for Subject Search of their online catalogs. A subject search is more specific than a keyword search: it looks in only one field of each record - the subject field.

Many databases use subject headings that are unique to that particular database. This controlled vocabulary allows for consistency of terms across the database. For example, the PsycINFO database uses the APA Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms and the Medline Ultimate database uses MeSH - Medical Subject Headings. These subject headings can be found in the database's thesaurus. In the thesaurus subjects are often listed with broader, narrower, or related subjects. Using the database's thesaurus will help you identify most effective search terms.

Tip: Use both keyword searching AND subject searching to get better results.

  • Start your search with keyword searching; use your own words that describe your topic best.
  • After getting results, focus on the most relevant record(s), and among subject headings, presented in them; choose the most suitable ones for your topic.