Research Strategy

To make the search process easier, it is important to first think about what question your research should answer.

Structure the Search

One of the best practices researchers employ that everyone can adapt to suit their own needs is to plan a search strategy before embarking on the hunt. A suggested general sequence is:

  1. Determine the question.
    If someone were to read the question without added explanation, would they understand what was being asked? Is enough known about the topic to ask specific questions or will the first search be one to gather preliminary and background information?
  2. Consider the concept(s) in the question.
    Is there another way to express the question? What are words or phrases that could be incorporated into the search or removed to make searching more focused?
  3. Decide what type of information is required.
    What will best answer the question? Will it be a set of statistics, a historical summation of events, or a list of items that contain even more information about the subject of interest? Does it entail meeting with someone to conduct an interview?
  4. Speculate on where that information could be found.
    Who are the organizations with an interest in this topic? Is there a government agency that gathers data on this subject? What about universities and colleges – do they have degree programs or research programs on the issue? Are there companies or trade groups with business ties to the subject? Did the media report on it? Would the Internet be the best source, or are books better this time?

Search Language

Please Note: the term system is used here to represent Internet search engines and library online catalogs interchangeably.

Controlled Vocabulary

Most internet search engines will accept “natural language” searching in which a user can select everyday words to express their question (ex: “parliamentary elections”). The alternative to natural language is “controlled vocabulary” in which there is a set of predefined terms that a user must apply in order for the system to recognize their search. Most online library catalogs use a controlled vocabulary to help resolve the problem of context because words are given a precise meaning. Therefore, if someone is searching for information on monitoring corruption, they would have to use “Political Accountability” or whatever term the system prescribes. For example, the Democracy Research Guide uses a set of subject headings to describe issues related to democracy.

Boolean Operators

Once the words are selected, it is time to decide how to put them together for the system to do its work. Boolean searching describes the method of telling a search engine to find certain words, sometimes in a certain order.

  • AND tells the search engine to find all of the words connected by AND
    Ex: “democracy AND governance” finds all items that contain those two words.
    Use AND to narrow the number of possible items found.
  • OR tells the search engine to find one or more of the connected words
    Ex: “media OR censorship OR freedom of information” finds all items that have any one of those words.
    Use OR to increase the number of possible items found.
  • NOT tells the search engine to avoid any item containing the term following NOT
    Ex: “elections NOT monitoring” will find all items containing elections, but will not include those items that contain monitoring.

There are several sites dedicated to helping Internet users to learn search techniques that improve the quality and relevance of search results. An Internet search using the phrase “search strategies” will return some good sites. For example:

Bare Bones 101: A Basic Tutorial on Searching the Web

Ask for Help

If you experience difficulty with your search, do not hesitate to ask for help. The librarian at your organization or your local public library can help you structure your research and find the resources that you need.

In addition, most search engines provide a Help section (sometimes known as search syntax) that provide tips to help you find appropriate search results. For example, Google provides basic and advanced search help.