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Training Economics: 3. Search strategy

Search profile: make explicit choices

When doing longer papers or a thesis it is sensible to make an explicit search profile as part of your search strategy. A search profile details:

  • the central question
  • the main elements of your central question
  • delineation of your subject: period, area, theoretical apporach
  • more formal limits: publication years, publication languages
  • the type of information you are looking for (analysis, overview, opinion, statistics etc.) and the type of publication in which you expect to find that information
  • search terms and alternative terms for each of the main elelemnts in your research question
  • your search methods: systematic/bibliographical, snowball/citation method or catalogue method
  • the databases and search engines to use (based on coverage, publication types your want to find and search method).

At least once try to write all these choices down to force yourself to make them explicit. During your search you can add things or eliminate them when they do not prove fruitful.

Searching systematically and keeping track of your searches using the search history

Many search engines have a search history in which your searches are kept. You can use this information to: 

  • Keep track of your searches, so you won't perform searches twice
  • Retrieve an earlier search, for instance when after trying alternatives you decide that the earlier search was the best after all
  • Quickly compare the results of several searches
  • Work systematically by searching on loose terms first and then view your search history to find out what these terms generated. Then combine these terms in a new search.

Some search systems offer the option to combine search terms directly from the search history. For instance by ticking previous searches and combine them with AND or OR.

If you want to keep your search history also after closing your browse session you should create an account in the search system. Google offers this option as well as most catalogues and databases in the library.

Boolean operators

Do you want to see how Boolean operators work, try the The Boolean machine. This will visualize what happens when using AND, OR and NOT.

Search strategy: what, where, how?

Your search strategy defines what you search, where you search and how you perform your search. In the course of your search process you take many decisions that affect the quality of search results and the time needed to get those results.

The main decisions in your search strategy relate to:

  1. What: in advance think through what information you really need: subject, type of information (analysis, news, statistics, opinion, overview etc.), level and recency. The exact terms you are going to use in your search are of crucial importance.
  2. Where: What you are looking for determines where you should go to find it: unfortunately there is not one search engine or database that has it all.
  3. How: There are various methods of searching. The systematic/bibliographic method (using search terms in scholarly databases) and the snow ball method (finding new information related to what you already have) are the most important. The exact application of these methods depends on the options available in the database or search engine.

The special LibGuide search strategy (in Dutch) has more on building successful search strategies.

How to search? Search methods and techniques

The way you search is a combination of a search method, the accompanying search techniques and the structure of your search.

Search methods:

  • Snowball method: search based on the features (author, references, citations, keywords etc.) of an earlier found publication. Usually simply by following the links in a search engine or literature database. Citation searching is a special kind of snowball searching in which you follow citation links. You will find more recent literature.
  •  Systematic method: entering search terms you thought of yourself in search engines that make literature in a particular discipline (or any discipline) searchable, regardless of availability
  •  Catalogue method: entering search terms you thought of yourself in search engines that make literature in a particular (print or electronic) collection searchable

Search techniques:

  • Boolean search: combining and excluding with AND, OR, NOT, NEAR
  • Exact phrase: search by an exact combination of words, often by using double quotes e.g. "climate change"
  • Truncation: searching by the root that a group of words has in common, often by using an asterisk e.g. migrat* for migration, migrated, migratory etc. (not supported by Google)
  • Masking tell the search engine that one or more characters you are not sure about are not neccesary for your search
  • Using keywords generated by the authors or by the makers of a search engine
  • Using thesauruses: (subject related) overviews showing the relation between professional terms
  • Field specific search: indicate that your terms must occur in a particular part of the publication (title, summary, name of the author). Use 'advanced search' option.
  • Using filters and 'limits': limit your set of results by excluding publications having certain features (for instance filter on language or publication year)

Execution of your search:

  • Start with broad or narrow terms and either zoom in or zoom out
  • Switch to and fro between your search terms and your search results to improve them
  • Not enough results?  > Enter fewer and broader terms, use truncation, OR instead of AND, use other source
  • Too many results? > Enter more and more specific terms, exact phrase, AND instead of OR, filter (by year for instance)

In the special LibGuide zoekstrategie (in Dutch) you will find more information about search methods and search techniques.