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How Scientific and Technical Information Works

Learn everything you need to know about scientific literature, including how to find, understand, use, and ultimately create your own.

A Basic Strategy: From General to Specific

Infographic demonstrating moving from general terms and databases, to more specific, topic being climate change

The best overall search strategy is to start general and get more specific as you go along. This applies on a number of levels.

  1. Starting with broad keywords will bring you a big pool of results, which you can sort through and filter using tools in the database. As you proceed through your search, you'll pick up additional keywords you can add to your search.
  2. Similarly, it's important to pick up some background knowledge, history, and language around your topic using encyclopedias and other reference tools. You don't want to go into your research missing basic, crucial information.
  3. Starting your search in a large interdisciplinary database will bring you lots of results from many disciplines so you can see the full range of what's available to you.
  4. Using a smaller, more specialized database is a smart next step. In these databases, you'll find subject-specific results that may not have made it into the bigger interdisciplinary databases.
  5. If your research is interdisciplinary, you may want to check multiple specialized databases. Example: if you're looking into a topic in biochemistry, you may want to search in both ACS Publications (for the chemistry part) and BioMed Central (for the biology part).

Where Should I Search?

By the time you're ready to search, you should have a sense of how many and what types of sources you need to complete your assignment. But where should you search for them? There is no single place where you can find everything you need. Different types of sources are found in different databases, so plan to do at least 2-3 separate searches to cover your bases.

Foley Library subscribes to more than 350 databases! They come in many forms, and have all sorts of content in them, but in general they can all be searched using the same basic skills. Follow the "general to specific" rule here:

  1. Start with a large, multidisciplinary database like Academic Search Complete, Web of Science, or ProQuest Research Library. This will give you a large initial pool of results, especially if your work draws on multiple areas of study. 
  2. Next, select subject-specific databases by referring to the Articles tab in this guide, or one of the library's other subject guides for expert recommendations. Subject databases are usually smaller, but provide more focused results, and may include subject-specific search tools as well.

How Should I Search?

Strategy 1: upgrade your keyword searching. Pick out 2-3 specific words or phrases. Get rid of any filler words. Databases function using only the information you give them; they can't guess synonyms, and they don't understand which words are important and which aren't. They will not correct your spelling errors.

  • DON'T"how do animals reproduce parthenogenetically?" This is a good research question, but not a good search query.
  • INSTEAD, TRY: parthenogenesis AND animals. By boiling our topic down to just a few key words, we're able to get a more focused pool of results.

Strategy 2: enhance your keyword searching using Boolean operators and other advanced tools. Boolean operators, originally from logic and math, are words we can use to "glue" our keywords together in different ways.

  • AND is the most common operator, used to narrow a search. When we searched dog AND wolf above, we told the database we only wanted results that include both of our keywords. AND is usually the default if no other operators are used.
  • OR is used to broaden a search. OR is great when we have a concept that's described in multiple ways. For example: dog OR canis familiaris OR bulldog
  • NOT is used in specific situations where a particular term that we don't want is junking up our search. For example, if we wanted to know about tides other than the ocean tide, we might try: dog NOT dingo.
  • "Quote search." Sometimes we need to find a particular phrase or title. The quickest way to return that exact phrase or title is to search it in quotes. The quotes force the database to search only for the exact string of characters inside the quotation marks. This means you need to check spelling and grammar before searching!
  • Wildcard*. This clever tool helps us search for multiple tenses of a word at once. Databases don't always understand that when we type in a word like evolution, we also mean evolve, evolving, evolutions, etc. We can get around that problem with the wildcard: evol*.

Advanced Searching: Subject Headings

Subject headings are used to some degree in all databases to describe and categorize sources. Most sources that are included in a database have been tagged by humans with "controlled subject terms" that describe the basic topic(s) of that source. This means that experts got together and chose specific terms to describe concepts (for example, sources referring to soda, pop, cola, etc are all found under the heading CARBONATED beverage in Academic Search Complete).

The quickest way to find subject headings is to do a keyword search and check the subject headings on any article that seems relevant. Clicking on the subject term will take you to the full list of sources tagged with that subject heading.

Subject headings are useful because once we find the right one, it will lead us to all of the sources the database has on that topic, whether they showed up in your original keyword search or not. They are much more accurate than keyword searching, if you can figure out how to use them.

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