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Searching the literature like a librarian

In this article, Dr Lee Fallin shares top tips for searching the literature like a librarian.
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Most students and researchers think they are good at searching the literature. The ability to find things, however, does not always mean they are using the best tools and strategies. This article will cover the search techniques you can use to search the literature like a librarian – a professional! If you follow the guidance on this page, you will find better quality and more precise results.

Step 1: Search in the right places

Good searching starts with the use of the right tools. Many researchers start with free tools like Google Scholar, Semantic Scholar or PubMed. Yes – they are easy to use, but they often lack the precision and transparency of specialist databases. You should always start with your university or organisation’s library (or libraries). Libraries provide specialist databases and discovery tools to help you find the best research in your field.

If you are not affiliated with a university or organisation – then Google Scholar, Semantic Scholar or PubMed are the best tools available and you absolutely should use them. Just start with your library if you have access to one!

Step 2: Identify key terms

The second step in planning your search strategy is to identify key terms. It is important to consider the keywords related to your search topic and consequently establish appropriate terms. Rather than entering a whole assignment title, you need to pick out the important words needed to describe your topic. The database will only look for what you type in, so for each keyword, you need to apply a few search tips.

When identifying key terms, you need to consider any synonyms (a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language). Dictionaries and Thesauruses can help you identify useful synonyms.

Example: Synonyms of teenager would include: teen, teens, youth, juvenile, adolescent. Academic articles may refer to any of these terms so you should include all in your search

American spelling and terminology

It is important to consider American spellings and terminologies in a lot of literature searches. The next page will introduce search operators to help you search for both English and American spellings in your search.

Example 1: In the United Kingdom, pre-school is called a nursery or creche. In America, this is referred to as Kindergarten.

Example 2: The American spelling of behaviour is behavior.

Formal and informal terminology

When searching it is important to consider formal and technical terminology alongside informal terms. Academic papers and articles may refer to either.

Example 1: If looking for literature on ‘heart attacks’, you should also include formal terminologies in your search like ‘myocardial infarction’.

Example 2: If investigating the use of instant messaging, you may want to include terms like ‘chat’ in your search.

Word endings and plurals

When searching you should consider alternative word endings and plurals. The next page will introduce search operators to help you include these in your search.

Example 1: If searching for ‘educate’, you should consider whether alternative endings like ‘education’, ‘educating’, ‘educated’ are useful in your search.

Example 2: If searching for ‘university’, you should consider if the plural (universities) is useful in your search.

Acronyms and abbreviations

You should always consider acronyms and abbreviations for different words, phrases and even organisations when searching as authors may use either in their titles and articles.

Example 1: ‘myocardial infarction’ is often shortened to M.I.

Example 2: Popular social media tools are often abbreviated, for example, FB for Facebook.

© University of Hull
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