9 research tips for finding information online

Do you want to be able to search databases and other online tools efficiently and effectively? Here’s 9 tips and tricks to help you achieve better search results.

1. Analyse your assignment question
Keywords are key! You will need to analyse your assignment question to develop a list of keywords to use in online search tools.

2. Brainstorm more keywords
Did we mention that keywords are important? Make sure you are using synonyms of your keywords. Consult a thesaurus; there are plenty of free versions online. Your topic is probably discussed by experts using a variety of terms and you’ll want to catch all of this research.

3. Watch out for words with different spelling options
You need to be aware of the words you are using which could have an alternative spelling. Remember, there are differences between British English and American English spelling i.e colour and color. Some search tools will automatically find both spellings, but some need you to include both versions.

4. Know your limits
Most search tools let you limit your results in a range of ways. Use these tools to focus your results to only the content you need. Do you need peer-reviewed journal articles? Do you need news articles from the last three months? Limit your search to what you need.

5. Keep keywords together
Sometimes you really need your keywords to stick together. If the words aren’t in the correct order, then the results aren’t relevant. For example, higher education. Most search tools will find your phrase in the correct order if you enclose the words in quotation marks e.g. “higher education”. This works best for two or three words.

6. Find multiple words in one go
Some search tools will only provide results for the exact keywords you use. For example, if you search for teen, it will only find results that contain teen. That’s fine, if that’s what you wanted. But chances are you would like results for teenteensteenager and teenaged. If you use truncation, you don’t need to type in all of these words. You just use a symbol (usually the asterisk *) to tell the online search tool to find any endings to your keyword. For example, you can search for teen* and find results for all of them in one go. Such a timesaver, right?

7. Use wildcards
A wildcard is a symbol you can use in the middle of a word to catch any alternate spelling options for that word. The wildcard symbol varies between search tools, but is frequently a question mark (?) or an asterisk (*). For example, if you are searching for the keyword behaviour and know there is an alternative spelling option, you can use the wildcard symbol to find both spelling options at once e.g. behavio?r

8. Combine keywords and synonyms
So we’ve already stressed the importance of keywords and synonyms. But you will need to think about how you are going to use all these words when you search an online tool (like the library catalogue or databases). And that’s where Boolean operators come in. Boolean operators are the terms AND, OR and NOT. They are used to join your keywords together to form a search strategy. Check out this YouTube video from Penfield Library to get an idea of how to use Boolean operators in your search.

9. Dig into references
Don’t forget to check the reference lists of the resources you find. They may list other helpful sources of information that you can then use.

Extract from Study Smart – Preparing for your assignment.