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Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

Training information skills for Sustainable Development Master in GEO4-2328: 2. Explore & contextualise

Analysing governance practices

ERXPLORING & SEARCH TERMS (approx. 30 mins.)

  1. When designing research after setting out your goals a first step is always to explore and contextualise your research questions. In order to determine relevant research issues you can use reference works. Find some basic texts that give you an overview of aspects of your subject/problem and also basic definitions. You can use (the English) Wikipedia in this stage, but at least also try to find handbooks and encyclopedias using the screenshot on the right of this page as an example of how to search for these in the library catalogue. Most will be e-books. On the right of this page you'll also find a box with some of the most important handbooks and encyclopedia's, but try to find more and more targeted ones and look up relevant articles in these reference works. When scanning these texts write down possible extra search terms you encounter.
  2. Try to find one or two recent review articles using Scopus with its refine filter 'document type'
  3. Create a list of (at least 5) of the most important concepts related to the topic of your research. Do this by creating a table in Word/Excel. Create two extra columns in your table: one to the left and one to the right. Now try to think of broader concepts/terms for the ones listed and note them down in the left column and try to think of narrower concepts/terms and note them down in the right hand column.

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.

Exploring environmental science & governance subjects

The first stage in finding information is a short exploration of your subject. You ask yourself questions such as:

  •  What is the exact meaning of the terminology used in my subject
  • Where and when?
  •  From which sub-discipline of Earth Sciences is the subject approached?
  •  Are any other disciplines relevant to the study of the subject?
  •  What is the process/phenomenon part of?
  •  What aspects are part of the process/phenomenon?
  •  What is common knowledge, what has already been proven and what is being researched or not being researched at all yet?

To answer these questions you can investigate your subject briefly with the help of some of these reference works and search engines:

Publication types: each has its own role

Scholars use many different publication types, either passively (as source) or actively (as a means to distribute their research findings and studies). Active publication is done overwhelmingly in journal articles and books. Passively a much broader spectrum of publication types is used. A list of publication types and the types of information that they carry:

  • book (monography): theory, in depth study, contemplation, context, (historical) overviews
  • book (edited volume): case studies, testing of new theory
  • dissertation (monography or reprinted articles): result of extensive research, often with an exhaustive bibliography
  • journal article: primary research results, theory testing, analysis of specialised subjects, scholarly discussion
  • systematic review: meta-analysis of literature with evidence based insights
  • reference works (encyclopedias, subject dictionaries): facts, definitions and synopsis of accepted theory and description
  • handbooks: overview and interrelations of theories and important insights
  • reports: policy, policy evaluations, government research, objectives of organisations
  • newspapers, online news media: news, news analysis, opinion
  • blogs, social media: (discussion of) news, ideas, opinions
  • research data sets: source of raw data for replication of research
  • statistics publications/databases: primary data for quantitative empirical research
  • maps, atlases and geodata: source for spatial analyses

Relevant years and languages


  • Only filter by year if you cannot think of any other more meaningful criterion to make your query more specific.


  • For environmental science & policy studies English is by far the most important langauge. Other languages may be important if you want to read reports on local (policy) contexts in a certain non English-speaking country. Of course if your research applies to non-English speaking countries other languages may be important as well, especially for applied literature such as government or NGO reports.

Generating search terms

The right search terms are the most important conditons for an effective search.

General tips:

  1. Think 'in terms of' the article to be found. What words are likely to be used in the article you hope to find?
  2. As a result of your findings, correct your search terms a few times in the initial phase of your search

Keep in mind the different kinds of terms:

  • synonyms
  • broader terms
  • narrower terms
  • related terms
  • antonyms
  • persons or organisations related to your subject
  • translation into languages relevant for subject and discipline
  • Think, for each of these categories, of the different forms (single, plural etc.) spelling variations and possible abbreviations/acronyms)

You don't have to think of terms all by yourself. Use the tools:

  • words from an introductory article in Wikipedia for instance
  • words from search result pages in search engines 
  • keywords from previously found sources (especially the so-called 'author keywords')
  • dictionaries, for translations and for looking up the meaning of words
  • thesauruses, for finding related terms that you may not have thought of (e.g. this general thesaurus for the English language)

In the special LibGuide page on formulating a search question you will find more information on how to generate search terms

What about Wikipedia?

In scholarly research, Wikipedia can be used for:

  • Initial exploration of a subject
  • Gaining ideas about search terms to be used
  • Finding out or checking facts, but please do a double-check
  • Literature references: often there are references to a small number of crucial publications
  • Source references: in the footnotes of many articles detailed source references can be found
  • As object of study: in what way is a subject written about in an influential reference work?
  • As quick translation tool, for words, but particularly for concepts for which mainstream (online) dictionaries offer no solution

Please bear in mind that the various language versions of Wikipedia may differ:  as a rule the larger versions (for instance the English version) is of a higher quality, because on average more people contribute to an article. Compare the article in the different language versions.

Another thing one can do is study the talk pages of an article. It shows the (low or high) level of discussion amongst editors. You can take that into account in your decision on how to use the information provided in the article.

Contrary to what is often thought, Wikipedia is a reference work with explicit rules, policy and control.

In the special LibGuide Wikipedia  more details, background information and examples of good Wikipedia-use.