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How to search – step by step

Tags: English

Plan your search

Have a clear search strategy

You can search for information in a more deliberate and conscientious way if you plan your search with a clear strategy.

Here we describe the search process step by step. Real searches rarely follow a set pattern. Often you will discover new things along the way which will make you rethink earlier steps.  Keep in mind that the important thing is not that you must follow these steps in a certain order. Instead try to be aware of what it is that you are actually doing when you search for information in a strategic way.

Image depicting the steps of the information search process

Illustration of the search process. Inspired by Saunders, Mark, Lewis, Philip & Thornhill, Adran (2007).

Formulate your research question

What do you need information about? Formlate this in plain language. If you need help clarifying your topic, you can consult publications like an encyclopedia.

Example: How does corruption affect the democratization process in poor countries?

Think through your information need and prepare

What kind of information do you need? Where - in which sources - can you find this information?

If you want to capture a current debate, you will probably need to search among newspaper and magazine articles. For a perspective that goes further back in time, you can consult encyclopedias and books.

Should the sources be of a scholarly nature? Then you may need to look for scholarly journals, conference proceedings or research reports.

Read more about publication types and their use.

You may also need to limit your search:

  • Geography: Which countries am I interested in?
  • Language: Should I search for all information irrespective of language?
  • Publication date: Should I limit my search to publications published during a specific time period?

Example: I want to limit my topic to Africa. I can read publications in English and Swedish. I will need to acquaint myself with political theories on democratization, and for this I will use books and perhaps journal articles. I also want to find statistics on democracy and corruption in African countries. Finally, I would also like to reflect on the latest events. I can find this kind of information in the current news media.

The more you know about your area, the better the conditions will be for you to get your search right. There are many ways to prepare for this. An easy way is to talk with a teacher or some other person who is familiar with the subject. Another way is to start from a known publication and look up its references to other publications. Another common approach is to use handbooks. These present the research within the subject and contain references to important researchers and their publications.

Choose search tools

When you have formulated a research question and thought about what type of information you need, it is time to choose the appropriate search tools.

  • Search services/discovery tools are services that search in a great number of sources using one single interface.
  • Article databases are comprised of articles from journals. Depending on the character of the database, they may contain scholarly journals or trade magazines, or a combination of several publication types.
  • E-book databases contain e-books.
  • Fact databases are databases that supply statistics, company information or information about countries, etc.
  • Citation databases contain information about which articles cite particular authors and publications.

See the page Search tools - an overview for a detailed presentation of different search tools.

Example: Books on political theories can be searched for in Primo - the search tool on the library website - or in any of the e-book databases. Journal articles can be found by using a search service or by searching in the article database Worldwide Political Science Abstracts. To see which articles and authors are well-cited in the subject area, you can use a citation database like Scopus. Statistics can be found in fact databases like OECD iLibrary and UNdata. Certain Swedish newspaper articles are archived in full text in the database Retriever research. International news can be searched for with Google News.

Choose search terms

​What search terms should you use? It is important to know what terminology is used within a specific field. The easiest way to discover relevant terms is to read about the subject in encyclopedias, handbooks or other overviews.

Before you start searching with these terms, it is also important to know the following:

  • the language of the search tool
  • are you searching in the whole text of the publication (free text) or only in titles or other kinds of metadata?

Read more on the page Choosing search terms.


There are different techniques available for limiting and refining your database searches. If you are searching among hundreds of thousands of publications, it will be easier for you to retrieve relevant hits if you know something about these search techniques. You will probably also need to take a step back and reassess your search words.

Learn more about this in the guide Search techniques.

Evaluate and re-examine your search

​Do the publications that you have found match your information need? Sometimes, as you are learning more about a subject, you will need to reformulate your search problem. This means you will also need to re-examine your choice of search tools and search terms.

Be creative and reflect on your search results. This is a natural part of the search process.

Evaluate critically

Maintain a critical approach towards the documents and publications you find during the search process, and evaluate these based on their credibility and reliability.

Read more about what to consider when you determine the credibility of a text in the guide Evaluation of Sources.

Ask the library

Ask the library