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Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

Training ISS premaster Academic Skills: Subject

What to do

Take a good look at your topic and see if you need to define it further. Formulate a search question.
Use the information on this page.

You can adjust your search question based on your search results until you are happy with the way it is formulated.

Write down your search query.

key elements

Determine what the key elements are in your search questions.
For example:
I am looking for information on treatment of eating disorders for boys and men, in publications starting from the year 2000.

The key elements are:

  • treatment (what kind of treatment am I looking for?)
  • eating disorders (what kind of eating disorders am I looking for?) 
  • boys/men

NB! Limiting to specific publication years is done by filtering or adding limits to your search results, not by adding a publication year to your search question.

Define your subject

A good search question consists of several well-defined elements. The better you know how to define your subject, the more precise your question will be. If you can't really tell what your topic is about, your search results will be of no or less relevance.

By focusing on the sources that you do find when you start searching, you can get more and more clear what is that you want to find.
You can further define your topic based on your search results. For example if you find (too) much you may need to narrow down your search and make it more specific. Or if you find (too) little you should perhaps broaden your search a little.

Defining your subject: Specify your subject: the more specific you can define your subject, the more targeted you can search and the better you can select whether or not the articles you find are relevant. But be aware that if you narrow down your search query too much you will not be able to find (enough) results.

Need help? Try to find an answer to the following questions:

  1. Who is involved with your subject (population)?
  2. What does your subject entail (intervention, independent variable)? (define concepts, what exactly do you want to know / investigate)
  3. How does the what affect the who (outcome, dependent variable)?

and perhaps also:

  1. Where does your subject appear (for example, location, country, city / countryside)?
  2. When does your subject appear (time period)?

It is not always necessary (or possible) to have an answer to all questions.

Then formulate a clear and specific search query.

For example:

  • I am looking for information about bicycle accidents
  • I am looking for information about cyclists in the Netherlands

The following search question is better:

  • I am looking for (English and Dutch) information with / about statistics of bicycle accidents in the Netherlands over the past 5 years

Studying the literature

A well-formulated search question leads to the most relevant material. So find out more about your subject before you start and determine what you want to know. Ask yourself if you need some basic knowledge first or if you want to delve deeply into the subject straight away.

If you want to familiarize yourself with the subject you could consult standard books, handbooks and encyclopedias in your discipline, or visit Wikipedia. As a result, you will learn more about what knowledge is available (for instance concepts, definitions and theories). You could read books and articles by authors who are known to be experts in the field. Or ask an expert for tips and advice.