Skip to Main Content
Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

Training finding and handling scholarly information for GEO4-3633: 2. Your search profile

Research master human geography


  1. Make a first exploration of the subject using the information sources in the box on the right
  2. Make a search profile by creating a simple document a (preliminary) central research question, search terms with synonyms, broader and narrower terms and indication of the type of information you want to look for, amd consequently, the types of documents and search engines for those types of documents.
  3. Try to find at least one specialised handbook or guide on your topic.

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 termns for each of the main elements in your research question
  • your search methods:
    • systematic/bibliographical: searching with your terms using search engines
    • snowball/citation: following references and citations using some major search engines (Scopus, Web of Science, Google Scholar)
  • the databases and search engines to use (based on coverage, publication types you 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.

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

Exploring topics in human geography and planning

The first phase of searching is exploring your topic. Ask yourself:

  • What do the words in the topic description you were given mean?
  • When and where?
  • What geographical subdisciplines study the phenomenon/process?
  • Are other disciplines (economics? sociology?) relevant?
  • Is the proces/phenomenon part of something bigger?
  • What are the different aspects of the process/phenomenon?
  • (only for big projects such as a master thesis/PhD thesis:) What is accepted knowledge, with abundant evidence and what is still in debate?

To be able to answer these questions please explore some of these reference works and search engines:

  • General:
    • Wikipedia (English version); Wikipedia has often referneces to some basic literature. You can also search geographically for Wikipedia articles via Google Maps
    • A quick search; use the scholarly jargon and/or filter results by reading level (via het menu search tools | reading level, only in and only when you use the English interface)
  • Geographical:

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.

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 human geography 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 (French, Spanish, Portuguese), 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.