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Introduction to Library Research

Step One - Synonyms

We should have our topic broken down by now. During this step, we will try and find every synonym for our big ideas. This is because the English language has a lot of words for the same concept (or close enough to the same concept). We will search all of these words in the database to try and find as many relevant hits as we can.

funny coping
amusement defend
sarcasm insecure
comic security
jokes protect

Step Three - Linking

  1. Now repeat step two for all your synonyms. (Don't worry, it gets much easier after you've done one or two!) Type them up in a document. This is going to ultimately be a list of phrases you will tell the computer to look for in a database.
  2. Now you'll have a big search string. Use OR to link each and every synonym together. See below for an example.
    • funn* OR amus* OR sarcas* OR comic* OR comed* OR joke* OR joking
    • cope* OR coping OR defen* OR insecur* OR secur* OR protect* OR guard* OR manag*
  3. Notice that even though cope* and coping are the same synonym, we are still using OR.
  4. Now place parentheses around each idea. This groups similar ideas together so the computer know which "pool" of ideas to pick from.
    • This should be your result:
    • (funn* OR amus* OR sarcas* OR comic* OR comed* OR joke* OR joking)
    • (cope* OR coping OR defen* OR insecur* OR secur* OR protect* OR guard* OR manag*)
  5. Now, put AND between the two concepts. This tells the computer to only find results that have something from the first list AS WELL AS something from the second list.
    • This should be your result:
    • (funn* OR amus* OR sarcas* OR comic* OR comed* OR joke* OR joking) AND (cope* OR coping OR defen* OR insecur* OR secur* OR protect* OR guard* OR manag*)
  6. Review your final results!

Step Two - Truncation

Instead of individually typing every tense, plural, and adverb into the search box, we will use truncation to take care of that for us.

  1. In this example, we'll use cope. First consider what words are derived from cope. Here, they would be coping, cope, copes, and coped.
  2. Determine what letters are common to all of these words. Here, it is cop.
  3. Use an asterisk at the end. The asterisk is also referred to as a wildcard. This tells the database to return all results with words that begin with "cop."

These are the very basics of using the wildcard. Unfortunately, in this particular example, we used a string of letters that is a common beginning to many words. If we were to search "cop*" in a database, we would also find results with the word copper or copious or copies in them. None of these words are remotely related to the concept of coping. Here's what we would do instead:

  1. Determine what letters are most common to a word. In the previous example, it was cope.
  2. Search using a wildcard with cope*. This result will also get you the word copecetic, but it drastically reduces the number of false positives from copper, copious, or copies.
  3. Now add the word coping back into your search pool with OR. Your search will then look like this: cope* OR coping

Optional Step Four - Refining

Sometimes the words you use don't quite give you the results you are looking for. If you notice this in your search, take a look at what words are causing these irrelevant results. It may be as simple as removing that word from your search, and possibly replacing it with another word.

Other times, you may need to replace that keyword with a descriptor. See the next page, Using Subject Headings, for more information.

Another common problem is including words that are implied and finding wildly irrelevant results. For instance, if your topic is about wildlife rehabilitation efforts, there is no need to include the word "effort"-- everything anyone does is an effort!

Some databases may also have their own implications. For instance, "psychology" is implied by using the PsycINFO database.

Have you tried field searching? Searching for a word in the title of an article, for instance, may yield more relevant results than searching the entire article. You can tell most databases to search only specific fields.

If you're finding that you're finding older articles, every database has a way of limiting your results by year. EBSCO and ProQuest both have limiters on the left-hand side; for our other databases and the catalog, use the "advanced search" page.

A side note about Boolean operators

Boolean operators are a way of specifically telling the database what to search. The three most common are AND, OR, and NOT.

AND narrows your search. It tells the database that you must find results that contain all of the words you give it. For instance, if you wanted to find articles about strawberries AND blackberries, you will eliminate results that only contain strawberries.

OR expands your search. It tells the database to find results that contain any of the words you give it. So, if you wanted to find articles about jam OR jelly, then you are telling it find you any article that has the word "jam" in it, but "jelly" doesn't necessarily need to be present as well, and vice-versa. OR is perfect for synonyms.

NOT tells the database to never find anything containing the word you tell it not to find. We tend to recommend not using NOT because it can very easily eliminate relevant results. However, it can be useful to refine ambiguous words. For instance, adoption NOT laws can cut down on articles about the adoption of a gun control law. However, it might also not return you an article that mentions the law, but is focused on adoption.

To visually understand AND/OR, here's a handy graphic.

[With credit to Ohio University libraries.]