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Information Searching Guide: Planning and search terms

Use this guide to study the principles of scientific information searching: narrowing down a topic, choosing the right search terms and information sources and evaluating the search results. Mastering these valuable skills will prove useful in your studie

Preparing for information searching

Searching for information is commonplace: we look for general information about the weather or bus schedules on a daily basis without giving it much thought.

However, in an academic environment information searching has to be more planned. Systematic information searching starts by handling the topic, you must have an idea of the topic and information you are going to search for. For example, do you need articles, statistics or public documents.

Some searching strategies:

  • "Quick searching": first get familiar with your topic and concepts.
  • Browsing: browse materials about you topic. For example Andor database is good place to start your search. You can also browse the bookshelves at the library premises.
  • One good article: sometimes your topic may be so unsusal, that it is difficult to find anything. If you find a one good article, you can expand your search by checking references and keywords of this article.
  • Systematic review: Exact planning, many databases with strictly defined criteria. You have to able to repeat the search and tell how you got the result.

Mind map

It is important to be able to parse the topic into concepts. You can for example use mind map to help you with that. It is easy to create a mind map by drawing one on paper. You can  also create it by using software, for example FreeMind.

You can come up with the words by yourself or use subject headings/keywords. The purpose of mind maps is to structure one’s knowledge about a topic.

Parse your topic

Parsing the topic into concepts and focusing your point of view in the beginning of the information searching process makes it easier to find relevant information. Here are some tricks:

  • Phrase searching - using an exact phrase and putting inverted commas around it e.g. "biomedical engineering"
  • Truncated searching - using an asterisk (*) after part of a word to search for all possible endings e.g. gene* will retrieve references with  gene, genes, genetic, genetically.
  • Boolean operators - a way of broadening or narrowing searches by organizing the way words relate to each other e.g. AND, OR, NOT
  • If the search engine has an Advanced Search option then use it - it will produce more refined searches and better results.

Example search:

Topic "Children and young using social media", parse topic into two concept groups:

  1. concept group: children, young
  2. concept group: social media 

Search with using Boolean operators: (child OR young) AND (social media)

Tips for this search:

  • Truncation mark (child*, young*)
  • Synonyms: teen, adolescent, kid, toddler, Fcebook, Twitter etc.
  • Phrases: "social media"

(child* OR young* OR teen* OR adolsce* OR kid* OR toddler*) AND ("social media" OR Facebook OR Twitter)

NB! Always check instructions on the database you are using.

More info: Searching for  information page of this guide.

Search terms

In databases, the contents of the documents are described with freely chosen keywords and/or with terms from a thesaurus, a controlled subject index. A thesaurus is often a subject-specific glossary (for example MeSH). Indices can also be general, independent of databases and topics. In information retrieval, index terms should always be checked from the database in use, because indices are often database-specific.

Index terms can be used in many ways in both choosing the search terms and in information searching, they often include a description of the index term relations to each other (broader, narrower and related terms).


Dictionaries and thesauruses

Different dictionaries and thesauruses are good tools when defining your concepts and search terms. Most scientific publications are in English. The MOT dictionaries contains several different languages, such as Finnish, Swedish, French, German etc.

Searching - test your own topic

Here are some documents to support you. Take your cue from the model example and then experiment with your own topic.


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