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Training scholarly information handling for geoscience faculty & PhDs: 2C: Generating search terms

Search terms

This page offers information on the only really creative aspect of searching: thinking of terms to describe your topic and use in your searches.

Here you'll find info on:

  1. Thinking in 'terms' of the document you're looking for
  2. Types of search terms
  3. Combining search terms
  4. General tools for finding the right terms
  5. Special aids for finding the right term in geography, geoscience, environmental science and innovation science

You might try:

  1. Using the Van Dale online dictionaries site
  2. Using Scopus, to make a list of papers citing your work and find the frequency of (author) keywords used in those papers
  3. Using Scopus, finding out the difference in search result of search with and without truncation of all your search terms

Thinking 'in the terms of the document to be found'

Almeida Júnior - Moça com Livro

The most important advice we can give you on generating search terms is try to think of the terms likely to be used in the document. This so-called 'thinking in terms of the document you are looking for'  helps you to avoid looking for information with the help of terms that you would use, but encourages you to use terms the author has probably used.

This means, rather paradoxically, that you try to imagine beforehand the content of the document you are hoping to find. Try to consider:

  • The jargon the author could have used: very scholarly, journalistic, business jargon, very formal language, street language etc.
    • By playing with these different styles, you may influence the nature of your results: the flu is the same as influenza, but searching on these terms generates information from different sides. W
  • What phrases/concepts you expect in the document. Put these multi-term phrases/concepts between double quotes
    • Please be careful because by using brackets you decimate the number of hits. It would be better to use this method once you have found out that the same phrase is often repeated ('continental drift') or when something is a fixed concept ('Utrecht University')
  • How the answers to your question are formulated.
    • Especially if you are looking for facts with the plain Google web search engine it is somtimes useful to enter a sentence which already includes the answer, but then without the answer of course; e.g. "Tesla is the inventor of" or "the director of Pulp Fiction is"

Thinking in terms of the document is easier once you have seen more relevant articles, thus know more about the subject and are more familiar with the jargon used.

This advice applies to classical documents such as books and articles, but also to web pages, reports, blogs and tweets.

Types of search terms

bredere zoektermen omvatten smallere zoektermen

Based on a first search term, you can generate more search terms by filling in the diagram below as far as possible. By word variations is meant single/plural,  nouns/adjectives and verb conjugations, for instance: migration, migrations, migrate, migrating, migrated. And also think of acronyms (e.g. CAD for Computer Aided Design). There are no search engines which search automatically for these word variations. However, many professional systems support truncation on the root of the word shared by all variations, often with the help of an asterisk. So in this case"migrat*

type of term
specialist terms
in the main language of the discipline
translations of specialist terms into other language
terms in the main language of the discipline
translation of popular
terms in other languages
+ word variations
and their spelling variations
broader terms
+ word variations
and their spelling variations
narrower terms
+ word variations
and their spelling variations
related terms
+  word variations
and their spelling variations
+ word variations
and their spelling variations

In addition to English and Dutch other languages may also matter: in the case of some disciplines (Languages of course, but also for Philosophy and Theology) and for some subjects and areas (Latin America, French Africa). For some disciplines (Biology, Medicine) Latin terms are also of importance.

Apart from all these terms related to your main search term you can also think of terms which frame your subject further:

  • such as persons or organisations related to your subject
  • terms which indicate a specification in time, space (periodes, centuries, place names, countries)
  • terms indicating a scientific approach, movement or method.

Combining search terms

You can also construct a query by making a string of several search terms  and to indicate with the help of operators what the search engine should do.

For instance, you are looking for information about the reproduction of praying mantis. You could make a string like this:

reproduction AND ("praying mantis" OR cricket*) NOT sport*

The most frequently used operators are:

AND: both terms must occur. Example: Fashion AND The Netherlands

OR: at least one of the terms must occur. Example: fashion OR trend OR hype

NOT:  the term must be exluded. Example: fashion NOT clothes

"... ...": terms must occur in this exact order. Example: "French revolution"

(... ...) In the case of complicated queries you must indicate by brackets how the search engine should manage your search terms.

*: by putting an asterisk behind the 'root' of a word, you search for all possible endings. For instance: govern*  to search in one go for government, governments, governed, governing, governance, govermental, governs. Please note: this is not possible in Google search engines!

General tools for search terms

synonyms and more at thesaurus.comYou don't have to think of every search term all by yourself. Especially in the case of  foreign languages, your active vocabulary is smaller than your receptive vocabulary: you do know or recognize the words, but you cannot think of them yourself. So make good use of anything that suggests good search terms:

Subject related sources:

  • Wikipedia usually provides many terms in an article that are related to your subject
  • subject encyclopedias provide much context and accepted scientific terms
  • in subject dictionaries you can check the exact meaning of a particular concept
  • Search engines/online bibliographies often give suggestions and sometimes show the the key words which authors and editors have added to the articles 
  • Reading through documents already found will help thinking of searhc terms. Remember them by highlighting or noting them down. If you use RefWorks as your literature management tool, you can often read again the key words/descriptors of earlier found literature.

Language thesauruses: lists of synonyms and related concepts in a particular language which you know receptively but not actively:

Translation dictionaries

more about dictionaries in the LibGuide woordenboeken (in Dutch) UBU LibGudie woordenboeken

Special tools for Geosciences search terms

For scientific terms:

  • Thesauruses:
    • Earth sciences: Georef Thesaurus (print book): relations between thousands of Earth Science subject terms.
  • Subject dictionairies:
  • execute a search on your topic using Scopus and then check the list of keywords in the refine menu.

For geographic names:

many more Geo gazetteers and databases of place names via UNGEGN