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Create a search strategy

Digital skills guides

We have a Searching for information guide with online tutorials and 'tips and tricks' to help you create an effective search.

Creating an effective search strategy will help ensure that you find the key material to support your research.

Good planning will:

  • ensure you find the key material
  • be helpful when you find too much information, or not enough
  • be helpful when you don't retrieve the results you expect.

Spending time thinking about your search topic, considering keywords and devising a strategy will improve the quality of your results, and save you time in the long run. 


Identify the parameters of your search

Before you start your literature search it is a good idea to spend some time defining what you want, and what you don't want.

This will enable you to set the parameters of your search and ensure that you are more focused on the information sources you need to locate to support your research.

You may find it helpful to think about the purpose, types of information and limiters to frame your research.


Targeting information sources


Think about the purpose and level of complexity of your research.

Would a quick search for basic level information suffice?

Are you searching for background information on a topic?

Do you need to do a comprehensive review of all the literature relating to your topic?

It's a good idea to think about the time available and deadline as part of the purpose setting exercise. You need to be realistic about the depth of research you will be able to achieve.

Think about the different types of information available and what you need to support your research.

Do you need primary materials? Government reports, raw data from research, legislation, statistics?

Do you need secondary materials? Journal articles, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, textbooks?

Do you need to identify current awareness and media information? Newspapers, social media?

Think about the currency/timescales, geographical relevance and language to limit or broaden the scope of your research.

Do you need the information you locate to be current, historical or a point time?

Are you looking for international, foreign or UK specific information? Are you doing a comparative study across different countries?

Does the information you locate need to be available in translation, English language or the native language of the country of origin?


Identify key concepts

Think about your research topic as a question or series of questions.

Identify the keywords and phrases from the question.

Think of possible synonyms and related terms for each of your key concepts. Consider using broader and narrower terms relating to your topic.

If you are having difficulties identifying related terms you may find it useful to look up a term in a thesaurus. Background and reference sources such as encyclopaedias and dictionaries can also prove useful when you are identifying search terms.

You may also find it helpful to develop a concept map. The Academic Success Centre's video Concept Maps - A Visual Study Tool provides tips for creating concept maps.

Truncation & wildcards

Truncation and wildcards

Electronic information resources (eg abstracting and indexing databases, journal collections and search engines) will often allow you to make use of certain search commands that will improve the effectiveness of your search.

By inserting a specific symbol either at the end or in the middle of your search terms in place of a character you can search for variations of a word.

Use a truncation symbol (often *) to search for variant endings.

  • For example, promot* will find promotion, promote, promoting, promotes.

Use a wildcard symbol (often ?) to replace any single letter within or at the end of a word to search for variant spellings of words or plurals.

  • For example, organi?ation will find either organisation or organization.

Always check the online help for the electronic resource you are searching to identify the truncation and wildcard symbols to use.


Combine your search terms

Combine your search terms using AND/OR.

AND combines search terms so that each search result contains all of the terms.

  • For example, management and strategies finds results that contain both terms. This makes your search narrower.

OR combines search terms so that each search result contains at least one of the terms.

  • For example, broker or stockbroker finds results that contain either term. This makes your search broader.

Perform your search

Perform your search

You will need to conduct your search on a number of different electronic information resources.

The resources you select to search will depend on the type of information you need to support your research, and may include:

  • books
  • journal articles
  • news and current affairs
  • primary sources
  • free-to-access websites.

You will need to conduct a number of searches on a given database.

Perform a search, analyse the results you are finding, and modify your search as necessary. 

At every stage you should aim to evaluate the information you find, to ensure that it is suitable for your purpose.

And it's crucial to keep full records of any potentially useful references.