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How to search – step by step

Tags: English

Choosing search terms

Identifying suitable search terms

The search terms you choose will determine what results you get from your search. Therefore, make sure to choose your search terms with care.

In order to get to know a subject area and identify suitable search terms, subject-specific encyclopedias and handbooks with research overviews are useful tools. These publications provide an introduction to the terminology used within the discipline. Read more on the page for publication types.

Scholarly publishing is mostly done in English. Therefore, you will often need search words in English.

Before you start to search, it is a good idea to divide up your research question into a number of concepts. For example, the research question "How does corruption affect the democratization process in poor countries?" can be divided into concepts like corruption, poor countries and democratization process.

Synonyms, language variations, and related terms

Think of what synonyms and related terms there are for each concept. At this stage of the process, it might be a good idea to make mind maps or lists of all the relevant terms you can think of in order to see how they are related.

Keep in mind that different databases may use different terms when defining a subject area. From our example - How does corruption affect the democratization process in poor countries? - you might think of the following synonyms and related terms:

corruption democratization process poor countries
bribery democratisation developing countries
bribes political development third world
nepotism democratize global south

Pay attention to the fact that British and American English sometimes vary in the spelling of certain words, e.g. organisation/organization. Also, do not forget that words may be in singular or plural forms.

Broader and narrower terms

Sometimes you might need to search for broader terms with a wider perspective to ensure that you capture all relevant material. In other cases, that kind of search might result in far too many hits, so it would be better to search with more specific terms.

Terms and concepts of databases

In order to find descriptive search words, it is a good idea to use the list a database provides for its own subject words. This is often referred to as the thesaurus, index or subject headings. By browsing such a list of words, you can gain an understanding of how the terms and concepts are used in the database, and how they relate to other terms and concepts within the same subject area.