Developing a Search Strategy

1) Introduction
2) What Is Research?
3) Choosing a Topic
4) Determining Sources of Information
5) Developing a Search Strategy
6) Quiz

Stage 5: Choose appropriate access tools, develop a search strategy for each tool, and conduct a systematic, planned search using each tool.
Once you've determined what kind of information you need and what types of sources might provide that information, you need to choose the right access tool, plan a strategy for using that access tool, and conduct a search for information. An access tool is simply a print or computerized "finding aid" that leads you to various kinds of information. For example, online catalogs (OPACs) and periodical indexes are access tools.

It is crucial to remember at this stage that the access tool(s) you decide to use depends on the type and level of information you're seeking. In other words, the tool must be able to access (or at least describe in the form of a bibliographic citation) the information you need. If, for example, you're looking for an in-depth overview of 20th-century Chinese history, one type of information source you probably need is a book. The access tool to find books is the library catalog, not an index or abstract. On the other hand, if you were seeking the results of the most recent national elections in China, a periodical index or the Internet would be the most helpful access tool.

Once you've chosen a tool, you must develop a search strategy for using it. A search strategy is a specific plan for how you'll conduct an efficient and effective search so that you uncover the most relevant information that a particular access tool can provide on your topic. Taking the time to plan a search strategy adds precision to your search and saves you lots of time: A carefully crafted search helps you avoid the frustration of wading through long lists of irrelevant citations. Listed below are the main steps to follow when developing a search strategy for any given access tool. You will learn more about each of these steps as you progress through the course:

Steps for Developing a Search Strategy:

1.      Divide your research question into concepts (main ideas).

2.      Identify synonyms or related terms for each concept. 

3.      Combine terms using Boolean logic (AND, OR).

4.      Conduct a search of the database in the keyword mode.

5.      Consider field searching, truncation, and proximity operators if the access tool provides these features.

Stage 6: Evaluate the citations your search found and select only the most relevant to your topic.
Now that you have conducted a search using appropriate access tools, you will be presented with a list of citations (sometimes called references, entries, records, or hits) that describe books, articles, or other sources of information. At this point, it is extremely important that you evaluate these citations for relevancy and quality. Even though you may have conducted a carefully planned search, you are still very likely to encounter "false hits" (irrelevant citations) in your search results list. The fact that a citation contains your search term(s) does not guarantee its relevancy to your topic, and it would be a mistake to print out or write down every citation that appears. It is crucial that you take the initiative and exercise your critical thinking and evaluation skills in a significant way at this point in the research process. Computers do not make research decisions, you do

Listed below are three important parts of a citation that you should closely examine. Citations often contain "clues" that help you decide if the entire item is of sufficient quality and relevance to track down and read in its entirety:

1. Title: Read the entire title, especially the subtitle if there is one, and look for key words and phrases that indicate relevance to your topic. 

2. Abstract: Computerized indexes sometime include brief abstracts (summaries) of the item described. Reading the abstract will help you decide if the item is relevant to your topic.

3. Author: Is this an author that you have come across before in your reading, e.g. in an encyclopedia article, review article, or bibliography? Is this author discussed, referred to, or cited often by other scholars and writers? If so, that person is probably important in the field you're researching.

Stage 7: Read, take notes, and evaluate the sources selected as relevant in Stage 6.
You are now at the point where you are reading and taking notes from the relevant sources you chose in Stage 6. When taking notes it is important that you use your own words and phrases to summarize and paraphrase what you read. If you borrow the language of your source too closely, or don't give credit to a source either through quotation marks or proper documentation, you are guilty of plagiarism. If you are uncertain about the process of notetaking and avoiding plagiarism, consult one of the many research guides in the CSM library, such as The Facts on File Guide to Research, by Jeff Lenburg, or The Prentice Hall Writer’s Guide to Research and Documentation, by Kirk G. Rasmussen.
Stage 8: Revise, refine, and repeat stages 1-7 as needed.
As noted at the start of this discussion, this model of the research process is flexible and allows you to react to what happens along the way and respond accordingly. If, for example, your search result list in Stage 5 is hundreds or thousands of records long, you have found too much information and may have to narrow the focus of your topic (Stage 3) or conduct a more precise search, perhaps with different terms. Conversely, if your search uncovers too little information, you may have to broaden its scope. Remember, as you go through the research process you are continually evaluating what's happening in terms of your overall purpose -- finding information that meets your needs. If your research goals are not being met, you have the freedom to make the necessary corrections or adjustments at any stage of the process.

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