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Dissertations & DMin Projects: Search Strategies

From Topic to Search Strategy

Developing an effective search strategy requires a little bit of planning. This video from McMaster University shows you the process of creating search strings from your topic ideas.

  1. Start with a topic
  2. Brainstorm related words and phrases and their synonyms
  3. Remove non-subject words, like prepositions
  4. Create search strings

Many databases, like library catalogs, will create search strings for you. Find the "advanced search" option, usually somewhere very close to the standard search box. Advanced search pages usually have drop-down boxes so you can tell the system how you want it to read your search terms, and you can usually add multiple lines for longer strings. You can also build your own search strings. More details about search strings and Boolean operators are in the second tab of this guide.

It's a good idea to keep track of which search terms and strings you've already used in which databases, and which results they returned, so that you don't repeat your efforts unnecessarily.

Boolean Searches

Library and database search engines use Boolean logic. An easy way to take full advantage of this system is by finding the "advanced search" option, where you can add as many search lines as you need, and set them to include or exclude terms, and to search specific parts of the record, like the author or title fields. 

You can also construct your own Boolean strings on the fly. The more you know about how Boolean syntax works, the better your searches will be.

Basic Rules

  • Spelling matters. Databases will look for your search terms as you have typed them.
  • Databases read any string of words outside of quotation marks as a list of keywords. If you want to search for a precise phrase, like a title of a book, put it in quotation marks so that the catalog will search for the phrase as a unit rather than a collection of possible terms.
  • Most databases will ignore many common, small words, such as articles (the, a, an), the verb "be" and many of its conjugations (is, are, am, etc.), and many prepositions (of, in, on, etc.) unless they are part of a phrase in quotation marks.
  • Searches are not case-sensitive. Most databases will not differentiate between capital and lowercase letters. Boolean operators (see below) are often shown in full caps so they are easy to see.
  • You do not need to include punctuation, accents, or special characters such as ø. Databases will find the same author whether you search for Birgitte Bøgh or Birgitte Bogh (but you should always cite your authors as precisely as possible).

Boolean Operators

  • AND tells the system to look for records that contain all of the words joined by AND. The phrase Judaism AND liturgy will return only records that contain both the words "Judaism" and "liturgy." If you simply type a list of words, the system will read them as if you have used AND. The phrase Judaism liturgy Purim is the same as Judaism AND liturgy AND Purim.
  • OR tells the system to look for records that contain any of the words joined by OR. The phrase liturgy OR ritual will return records that contain either of those words, or both.
  • NOT tells the system to exclude records that contain the word after NOT. The phrase Judaism NOT liturgy will return searches that contain the word "Judaism," but filter out the ones that also contain the word "liturgy." You can also use a minus sign (-) instead of NOT.
  • Parentheses tell the system to apply the preceding operator to all of the words inside the parentheses. Use parentheses to make your searches more specific or more broad. The phrase Judaism AND (liturgy OR ritual) will return records that contain the word "Judaism" and either or both of the words "liturgy" and "ritual."
  • An asterisk tells the system to search for any words that begin with the letters preceding the asterisk. A search for Christ* will return records that contain the words "Christ," "Christian," "Christianity," "Christmas," etc.

You can use these operators by themselves or in combination to create searches that are as broad or specific as you need. Keep in mind that the more specific a search is, the fewer results you'll get back. Vary your search terms as much as possible and conduct both broad and specific searches to get the best coverage of the literature on your topic.