Once you have written your research question, it is tempting to jump right in and start searching. However, it actually pays to spend some time thinking through the search process and coming up with a plan. This will make your searching more efficient and save you time and frustration in the end.
Step One: Look at your research question and try to determine what the main ideas are. If you had to tell someone what your topic is using only three or four words, what words would you use? Imagine your research question is "What are the ethical considerations around genetic modifications in humans?" If you told someone "ethical considerations," "genetic modification," and "humans," they would have a pretty good idea of what your topic is.
Step Two: Now, for each of your main ideas, brainstorm some synonyms and related terms that scholars might use when writing about that idea. As in the example below, use the Keyword Matrix to organize your ideas and terms. There is a PDF link for the Keyword Matrix at the bottom of this box.
Step Three: Determine which databases are most likely to have sources on your topic. This research guide can help you. You can also consult a librarian.
Step Four: Finally, it is time to start searching! The Keyword Matrix is your search road map--it lays out how you should enter your search terms into a database. On the "Advanced Search" page in a database, enter Idea 1 and its synonyms into the top search box, with an "OR" between each term. Idea 2 and its synonyms, with an "OR" between each, go in the middle search box, and Idea 3 and its synonyms, with an "OR" between each, go into the bottom search box. Put quotation marks abound any term that is made up of two or more words--this tells the system to treat the term as a single unit. The "AND" option should be selected in the dropdown boxes to the left of the middle and bottom search boxes. Using this strategy will give you a set of results that are targeted to your topic, and takes into consideration the various terms that scholars might use in their writing.
Often, the most challenging part of the research process is figuring out the best terms to use and the right database(s) to search in. It is frustrating when your first (or second, or third) search doesn't give you useful results. However, this is not failure. Searching is just as much a process of eliminating what doesn't work as it a process of figuring out what does.
Sara Lowe, University Library, IUPUI, firstname.lastname@example.org. Used with permission.