Searching and writing
Begin by formulating your problem
It's always easier to find information if you have prepared specific questions and terms in advance. So start off by analysing your task and formulating your search terms.
Here are some leading questions to help you:
- What do you need the information for (level, depth)?
- How are problems formulated in your subject?
- How can your problem be summarised in a search query?
Try to find different ways of describing your subject or formulating your question. Narrow this down by using individual words or terms. Use an encyclopaedia or handbook (subject overview) to find suitable search terms. Regard your search as a process in which you'll find better and more adequate search terms as your work progresses.
If you already have a book, an article or a student paper on your subject area, the reading and reference lists are a good starting place for finding materials and references. The books used on your course should also prove helpful.
What are you looking for?
Search for information in different kinds of library catalogues, databases or on the internet. Your choice of which finding tool, search engine or database to use will depend on how you have formulated your problem.
The most common information sources are books and articles from journals and newspapers.The most up-to-date research is generally found in research reports and scholarly journals. A scholarly publication contains research findings that have been reviewed by subject experts, so called peer review, prior to being published.
The Library gives access to a large number of quality assured databases where you can find all kinds of intormation. For example, articles, e-books, TV-programmes, patents, images, facts and more within many kinds of subject areas. To find journals and databases within your area, check out our subject guides.
If you want to search for a string of words or a concept consisting of more than one word you can use phrase searching. The most common way is to enclose the words in quotation marks: " "
In most databases and search engines you can expand your search by substituting letters in a word with a symbol. The most common is an asterisk (*), but sometimes a question mark (?) or a dollar sign ($) are used. The help texts for each database will tell you how to truncate words.
financ* will generate
- financial indicators etc.
*economics will generate
- microeconomics, etc.
wom*n will generate
Search with subject terms
Another way to narrow your search is to use subject terms. Subject terms are always used when books, articles and reports are registered in library catalogues and databases, and these are organised according to certain principles.
Subject terms vary in different databases, countries and subject areas. You can find these words under headings such as "subject", "index" or "thesaurus". Check which subject terms are used in the particular database you are accessing and use them in your searches. This is an easy way to find relevant information.
Combining terms using boolean searching
Most online databases and search engines use the same system to combine words in different ways. The method is called boolean searching. The most common for databases is to use three commands/operators: AND, OR, NOT.
AND – narrows your search and leads to fewer hits. Use AND when two or more words or terms must be in the same sources/reference.
Example: European Union AND Enlargement
OR – expands your search and gives a greater number of hits. Use OR for example when your search term has synonyms.
Example: EU OR European Union
NOT – narrows your search and leads to fewer hits. Use NOT when you want to exclude certain words or terms.
Example: Cancer NOT Lung
When you have selected a number of publications, the next stage is to evaluate their quality and reliability. Start by viewing all information with a critical eye and use your common sense when making your choices.
There are certain criteria that you can use for judging the quality of information. Consider the following:
- RELIABILITY - has the material been checked and evaluated?
- AUTHORITY - check your source, those behind the work and the writer.
- OBJECTIVITY - is it fact or opinion that is being communicated? What is the purpose behind the publication?
- UP TO DATE - how old is the information?
- CONTENT – for scholarly publications look at what the main results are and how they are presented. Is there information on the methods and sources that have been used? Do the results of the study satisfy the writer's stated aims and questions.
- READING LISTS AND REFERENCES – is there a list of sources? Is there information about further reading on the subject?
Source criticism on the Internet
Printed texts have usually been checked by the publishers (editorial boards) and subject experts check scholarly articles before they are published (peer-review). Internet texts on the other hand are rarely checked by others. Anybody can publish a text for any purpose at all, which means that the quality varies enormously.
All kinds of information - both printed and electronic - should be viewed critically, but it is particularly important to be observant and to evaluate carefully any information found on the Internet.
Analyse the information on a website using these questions:
- WHO has put this information on the Internet?
- WHAT does the website contain?
- WHY has the information been published?
- WHEN was it written and when was it last updated?
- WHO is the website targeting?