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Universiteitsbibliotheek – LibGuides

Search strategy: Formulating the search question

To 'Get going'

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.


What am I searching for? A well-formulated search question

A good search question consists of several well-defined (and where possible measurable) 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 subject is, your search results will be of no or less relevance.


  • “Is the weather beautiful?” (too vague)
  • "On a yearly basis, is it always beautiful weather in the period between April and September?' (less vague already)

Measurable and better is:

  • "How many summery days per year did occur in the Netherlands between 1900 and 2000?"( A summery day is a day with a maximum temperature of 25 degrees Celsius or higher).
  • "What month had, on average,  the least number of hours of sunshine in the period between 1900 and 2000?"


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)

To 'Where to search?'

Search profile: record your choices

In the case of searches for a larger paper or thesis it is recommended to create a search profile as part of your search strategy. In other words; write down what you are going to do/have done and the reason behind your choices.

Your search profile may contain:

  • your search question
  • the main elements/variables from that question
  • limitations, if there are any (time, place, year of publication, language)
  • the type of information you are looking for and the corresponding forms of publication (articles, social media)
  • the search terms and alternative search terms for each of your main elements
  • the search methods (may be more than one) you are going to choose or have already chosen
  • the search engines or databases you are going to choose or already have chosen (based on content, the publication types needed and search methods)

During your search you may obviously change, add or cross off  things when they are done or (in the case of for example search terms) if they turn out to be irrelevant.