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Training Master Youth Studies: Step 2: Create a search strategy

Activity: create a search strategy

Think of search terms which are relevant to both your main question and subquestions.

Use your (sub)questions and the matching inclusion criteria from the first assignments as a basis for phrasing your search terms.

Think about where you will search and how.

Use the information in the adjacent boxes.

The special LibGuide Search Strategy contains even more information

Search methods

Snowball method: You search on the basis of a suitable publication you have found earlier. For example other publications by the same author, or you go searching for other sources in the reading list of a relevant publication (authors make use of the work of others as a source for their own work, these sources will be mentioned in the reading list of the new publication). This way of searching for references goes back in time to older publications.

Citation searching: see if the article you found has been cited, and if so, have a look at this new article. If this article is also relevant you can see if this article has also been cited, and so on. Use a citation database, like Web of ScienceScopus or search Google Scholar. This search method goes forward in time to newer articles. Please take into account that a recent article may have no citations yet or only just a few.

Catalogue method: Searching with search terms of your own choosing in a search engine that makes literature in a certain collection/collection searchable. For example in WorldCat.

Systematic method: you search on the basis of (combined) search terms in search engines which make literature in a certain discipline (or all disciplines) searchable (regardless of availability) with the intention of finding as much literature as possible on that subject. You may expand (adding search terms you have found) or limit (cancelling search terms or filter on year of publication). You can use several search techniques in the systematic method. ​


Mindmapping can be a good and fun way to come up with search terms.

A mind map is a diagram made up of concepts, texts, relationships and/or pictures, which are arranged in the form of a tree structure around a central theme, for example (a part of) your search query.

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Effective search strategy

You could ask yourself a couple of questions in relation to an effective search strategy:

What am I searching for?
a. What is the subject of your search?
b. What types of documents contain the relevant information?
Then formulate a clear search question with the most useful search terms.

Where to search?
Choose the most suitable database/catalogue/website etc.: your choice is dependent on the answers to questions 1a and 1b. The library gives access to search engines for each discipline.

How to search?
a. Perform an efficient search: use relevant search terms and make use of the functionalities of the databases and search engines (search techniques).
b. There are several search methods. The bibliographic method (entering search terms in scientific search engines) and the snowball/citation search method (basing your search on something you already found) are the major ones. How to use these methods exactly depends on the options the search engines offer.

Can I use the sources I find and how do I select/assess the results?
Before you use the sources you found, you need to evaluate their relevance and scientific nature. This increases the reliability of your text. For answers to these questions, visit the LibGuide Evaluating sources.

elements of your search query

Split up your search query based on your inclusion criteria:

  • WHO is the focus (age, gender, ethnic group, socioeconomic status etc.)?
  • WHAT is the intervention or the idea that is tested?
  • HOW does the WHAT affect the WHO?

example of the elements of a search question: adolescents; cannabis use; social network sites

In the next step you go and find search terms for the different elements.
See also the visualisation of the search query.

Generating search terms

Thinking up the right search terms is one of the major parts of your search strategy.

Go looking for corresponding terms for each part of your search question. Don't forget:

  • ​synonyms (house / dwelling)
  • broader terms (university / higher education)
  • narrower terms (children / toddlers)
  • related terms (training / coaching)
  • antonyms (terms with opposite meanings, such as parent/child or poverty/wealth
  • persons and organisations of importance to your subject
  • terms indicating space and time (for instance eras, centuries, names of places, countries)
  • avoid bias in your search terms, it might colour the outcome of your search

And also think of the different word forms:

  • singular/plural
  • verb conjugations
  • nouns/adjectives
  • different spelling (labor / labour or organisation / organization)
  • abbreviations
  • translations into languages which are relevant to your subject and discipline

Correct your search terms along the way. If you do so from the very start, you will soon see which (new) terms produce the right results, and which terms don't. Repeat this method as long as it takes.

You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Use resources:

  • words from an exploratory search from, for instance, Wikipedia or handbooks
  • words from earlier found sources, for instance words from the title or abstract or keywords given by the author
  • dictionaries
  • thesauri (overviews of selected words or concepts and their mutual relations within a particular field of interest or discipline, often included in large, subject specific databases)

Search techniques

If you use more than one search term in your search, most search engines will look for documents in which all entered terms occur. Would you like to combine search terms in another way? In that case, you need to use so-called operators. This search method is also called a Boolean search (after George Boole).

The operators most frequently used:

  • AND: both terms must occur. Example: fashion AND France
  • OR: at least one of the terms must occur. Example: fashion OR trend OR hype
  • NOT (or sometimes AND NOT): the term must not occur. Example: fashion NOT clothes
  • "... ...": exact phrase, terms must occur together and in this exact order. Example: "French revolution"
  • * . By putting an asterisk behind the 'trunk' of a word, you search by all possible endings. Example: govern* searches for government, governments, governed, governance, governmental etc
  • Masking/Wild cards: for example a question mark (?) or hashtag (#) may be used to replace an unknown character. Example: labo?r searches both labor and labour; or : wom#n will return results with both woman and women

You can combine operators, much like in mathematical equations. ‘AND’ takes priority unless you use brackets to group concepts: (youth OR adolescent* OR "young adults") AND (bully* OR "peer harassment").

Please take note: operators and wildcards may differ among search engines.

Other techniques you can use:

  • 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 the '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)

Visualisation search query

visualisatie zoekvraag

Search query:
(adolescent* OR youth) AND (cannabis OR "soft drugs" OR weed OR hashish) AND ("social network sites" OR "social media" OR Facebook OR TikTok)