Developing Search Strategy

| Question Analysis | Tips for Getting Started |

Question Analyis

The success of your library research project will depend, in part, on the strategy you use to find information. Because library resources are organized by subject category, the words you use for searching are very important, particularly if you plan to use computerized search tools with keyword search capability.

You can use a five-step procedure called "Question Analysis" to develop search vocabulary for almost any research topic.

Step One: Define Your Topic

Think about your topic. Ask yourself what you want to know about the subject. If possible, write your topic down on a piece of paper. Since most research involves finding the answer to a question or hypothesis, your topic should be written in the form of a question. Click here for tips on selecting a research topic.

Example: Does the violence children see on television influence their behavior?

Step Two: Identify the Main Concepts in Your Topic

Examine your topic statement to identify the main concepts (circle them). Omit any words that are not essential to the meaning of your quest. In the example given above, the main concepts are:

1. Violence
2. Children
3. Television

Your topic may have only two main concepts, or perhaps three, four, or even five. The most important thing to remember is that each time you add another concept to your topic, you make it more specific, reducing the amount of relevant material you are likely to find. For example, if the concept "at school" is added to the topic in the example given above, research on child behavior occurring in other social contexts, such as the home and family, is not likely to be retrieved.

Step Three: Find Synonyms for Your Main Concepts

This step is very important because the tools you will be using to locate information (reference books, catalogs, indexes, databases, etc.) are published by a variety of publishing companies, and they may use different words for the same idea. It is imperative to have alternate vocabulary in mind, in case the terms used in your first search yield insufficient results.

Here are some possible synonyms and closely related terms for the main concepts in the example given above:

1. Violence: aggression, conflict, combat, disorderly conduct
2. Children: child, juveniles, youth, young people, kids
3. Television: TV, television viewing, video

Sometimes the easiest way to find synonyms is to use a thesaurus of synonyms and related terms. You can find various thesauri in the reference section of the Ruth Haas Library. Examples:

The Contemporary Thesaurus of Social Science Terms and Synonyms
The Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms
The Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors

Please ask the librarian at the Reference Desk on the first floor for assistance in finding the most useful thesaurus for your topic.

Step Four: Think of Ways to Narrow Your Main Concepts

If too much information has been published on your topic, you will have to find a way to limit the scope of your search in order to stay within the time limits of the assignment. Here are some possible ways to make the topic in the above example more specific:

1. Violence: limit to murder, fighting, verbal abuse, or domestic violence
2. Children: narrow by age, gender, or ethnicity
3. Television: limit to cartoons, commercials, news, MTV, or sitcoms

Step Five: Think of Ways to Broaden Your Main Concepts

If the amount of published information on your topic is insufficient, you will have to find a way to broaden your topic (cast a wider net) to retrieve the resources you need. Here are some possible ways to make the topic in the above example more general:

1. Violence: use anti-social behavior in general (lying, stealing, etc.)
2. Children: include teenagers (synonyms = teens, adolescents, young adults)
3. Television: use mass media in general, which includes film, video, Internet, print mass media, etc.

Remember! If you shift the focus of your topic in a major way, it may be necessary to inform your instructor of your intentions, and the reasons for the change.

Tips for Getting Started

Use Reference Books to Get an Overview of Your Topic

Before diving into a research project, it often helps to get a general overview of the subject. Ask the librarian at the Reference Desk to direct you to reference books containing essays or survey articles on your topic. The reference collections in the Ruth Haas Library and Young Business Library contain specialized handbooks and encyclopedias in most academic disciplines. Entries in reference books are usually written by experts in the field and often include a brief bibliography that can help you get started in your search for information.

Find the Best Periodical Index or Database for Your Topic

Once you have developed some search vocabulary for your topic, ask the librarian at the Reference Desk for assistance in locating the index or electronic database most likely to contain information relevant to your topic. In some cases, there may be more than one. If the index is computerized, try a keyword(s) search using the terms you selected as your main concepts. Scan the list of items retrieved for one that is especially relevant to your topic. Examine the full record display for the relevant item to find other subject headings or descriptors that might be useful in expanding your search, or try another keyword search using some of the synonyms developed in your Question Analysis.

Search the CONSULS Catalog for Books & Nonprint Media

Ask the librarian at the Reference Desk for assistance in logging on to CONSULS, which is the online catalog of the holdings of the four CSU libraries (CCSU, ECSU, SCSU, and WCSU). Try a Keyword(s) search using the terms you selected as your main concepts. From the list of items retrieved, select a title that is particularly relevant to your topic. Look in the "Subjects" field of the full record display to find the Library of Congress subject headings assigned to the work. Click on each of the headings to find other works about the same topic.

Don't Overlook Bibliographies!

At the end of most scholarly books and articles, you will find a list of references or "works cited." This can be a gold mine if you are still looking for resources. Check CONSULS to see if the WCSU Libraries own any of the additional sources that you find in bibliographies. If not, you may order books and media owned by the other CSU libraries via Inter-Campus Loan by selecting "Request Book" at the full record in CONSULS. If the item is not available in CONSULS, you may request it via the ILLiad Interlibrary Loan system. Please allow two weeks for delivery of books and articles not available digitally.

Please send comments to Joan Reitz, Haas Instruction Librarian, Western Connecticut State University.
Last updated on August 25, 2005