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Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

RMA Philosophical Research Methods: Session 1: Subject Orientation

Exploring your subject with handbooks and encyclopedias

Before you dive into specialist literature it always helps to get some basic information first and contextualize your topic. You can use reference works for that:

  • specialised encyclopedias targeting a certain topic or discipline: these are often substantial books with dozens, even up to thousands of short pieces on all aspects of a topic or on all issues in a discipline.
  • handbooks: introductory works with dozens somewhat longer pieces describing the current state of knowledge, often arranged thematically or by scientific perspective.
  • guides: books that are mostly more practically oriented or describing how to do research in a certain field.

Although there are thousands of these type of reference works there is no guarantee that they will be available for each and every topic. Also the delineations between the different types mentioned above may be quite vague.

Finding these reference works is not that hard. Using the advanced search in WorldCat. Search the title field with handbook OR encyclop*. On a second line of the same search again select the title field and type in a search term describing your subject (e.g. energy, transport*, horse*, renaissance, copyright, drug abuse or gravitational waves) .Try various (broader and narrower) terms that describe your topic. An increasing share of the search results will be available as e-books.

You can also try other terms describing reference works: dictionary, compendium, gazetteer, manual, textbook or truncate some of the terms, e.g. encyclop*. If you need to find non-English reference works, you need to work with non-English terms.

The most important reference works are also mentioned in the list of search systems on the library website.

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.

Search strategy: what, where, how?

You 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: think through in advance 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 methodes depends on the options available in the database or search engine.

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