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Searching Techniques

To make the most efficient use of your time when carrying out research, it’s important to have a plan before starting.  This involves answering a few key questions -

What do I need to find out?
Although this sounds like an obvious question, it’s still a good idea to think about exactly what you need to find out about the topic you’re researching.  Establishing what you know already is a good first step – for example you might already know a lot about documentary photography, but you might not know how postmodern theorists have critiqued documentary photography. In this case, a search for ‘postmodernism and documentary photography’ would be more useful than one for ‘documentary photography’. 

How will I describe my research topic?
Once you know which aspect of a subject you need to research, you can start thinking about how you’re going to describe it. Coming up with keywords and phrases that accurately describe the topic you’re researching is a good way to make your research time effective (in this case the more targeted your search is, the better results you will get). Thinking of alternative keywords and strategies to use if you don’t find what you need will also save time if you plan in advance. 

Creating a mind map or list based on your research topic is an effective method for identifying how to describe it. For example, you might start out with ‘Grand Theft Auto and violence’ and through a process of expanding on that idea end up with ‘Grand Theft Auto, misogyny and gendered violence’ which might better describe the aspect of the subject that you’re interested in. Having alternative keywords and phrases is also a good idea, as different people will describe the same topic in different ways. So, if you’re researching ‘ethical fashion’ you might also want to look for ‘eco-friendly fashion’ or ‘ethical clothing’.

What if I have an essay question?
Your essay question could contain people, ideas or objects. It will likely ask you to explain, contrast, compare or discuss. This is different to deciding on a research topic.  Be sure to understand what is meant by these actions. Look back through your unit handbook to find readings that are relevant to the subject of the essay.

Where will I find the information?
Knowing where you’re going to look to find information is an important thing to consider – is LibrarySearch or Google or somewhere else the place where you’re most likely to find what you’re looking for? Think about how academic does the information need to be, how specific is the information you need and how new or recent is the subject you’re researching? Generally, if you’re looking for academic information (i.e. the kind of sources required at university level study), then LibrarySearch is where you should start. If an aspect of the subject you’re researching only dates from the last 12 months, then finding good quality news sites via Google would be a good idea. Equally if you’re looking for information that doesn’t need to be particularly academic (i.e. reviews, basic facts like names and dates, or news reporting), then Google would be a suitable place to start looking.

How will I find the information?
Once you’ve chosen where you’re going to start your research, you can refer to the planning you did earlier. Using the keywords and phrases you thought of to describe your topic, you can try them in LibrarySearch or Google Scholar and see if the search results you get back match the topic you’re researching. If you’ve planned well and chosen the right place to research, you should find the information you need quickly. Sometimes a search plan doesn’t work out though, so this is when you can start to make use of alternative keywords, search filters, advanced search options in databases and advanced search terms. Most importantly, don’t worry - this is a natural and expected stage in any research. Making a search more effective can be as simple as finding different words to describe a topic (for example changing ‘postmodern art’ to ‘conceptual art’)

screenshot of a search for postmodern art in LibrarySearch

screenshot of a search for conceptual art in LibrarySearch

If a search is too specific, you can choose words with wider meanings, for example changing ‘digital luxury, the metaverse and fashion branding’ to ‘digital luxury and fashion’.

screenshot of a search for digital luxury AND fashion in LibrarySearch

You could consider using an advanced search technique in a database’s default search box, like an ‘OR’ search which allows you to search for two aspects of a topic at the same time, e.g. ‘fashion AND gender fluid OR gender fluidity and androgyny’ -

screenshot of a search for fashion AND "gender fluid" OR gender in LibrarySearch

screenshot of a search for "gender fluidity" OR androgyny in LibrarySearch

You could consider using a database that specialises in your subject like JSTOR, Art Full Text or Business Source Complete. These, and more, can be found using Databases A-Z. They give you the opportunity to make your search much more specific. You will see a drop down menu, usually to the side of the search box, found by clicking on Advanced Search. The words AND, OR & NOT help you to find what you need much more quickly. This is explained in the diagram below -

Term Example Result

Fashion AND Sustainable

Search results will include both keywords.

OR Sustainable OR Ethical

Search results will include one or both keywords.

NOT Ethical NOT Sustainable

Keywords after NOT will be excluded from results.

When you want to make a search more specific, you can use a phrase search to find an exact name or combination of words e.g. “gender fluid” rather than gender fluid. The inverted commas mean the search looks for your chosen words in the same combination, rather than anywhere in the text – e.g. ‘gender fluid clothing’ vs. ‘fluid clothing and nonconforming gender in luxury fashion’ -

screenshot of a search for "gender fluid" in LibrarySearch

Adding an AND is also an effective way of making a search more specific. Placing AND between two sets of keywords means that both are searched for at the same time and excluding results that only contain one of the sets of keywords – e.g. ‘fashion AND androgynous’ -

screenshot of a search for fashion AND androgynous in LibrarySearch

More specific still is the NOT search which allows you to exclude keywords and phrases from a search - e.g. ‘Fashion AND virtual NOT digital’ -

screenshot of a search for fashion AND virtual NOT digital in LibrarySearch

Other options for improving searches include using the ‘Refine your search’ filters on LibrarySearch. The options on the left-hand side of LibrarySearch allow you to filter by content type such as eBooks, print books, journal articles, as well as publication date, campus location and subject terms.

screenshot of a search for sustainability AND design in LibrarySearch

For more information about relevancy ranking in LibrarySearch, see the document below:

LibrarySearch uses an algorithm to rank search results by their relevance to your keywords. This is combined with factors related to qualities of the information contained in your search results.

This is called “dynamic” and “static” ranking. These factors work together to generate a "score" for each result. The higher the score given to an item, the higher up the list of your results it features.

LibrarySearch uses an algorithm to rank search results by their relevance to your keywords. This is combined with factors related to qualities of the information contained in your search results.

This is called “dynamic” and “static” ranking. These factors work together to generate a "score" for each result. The higher the score given to an item, the higher up the list of your results it features. 

Dynamic Rank
Field weighting – when a keyword or phrase matches an item in LibrarySearch, a score is generated according to the field in which that phrase or keyword is featured:  

  • Title, Subtitle and Subject fields are scored the highest.
  • The Author and Abstract fields are lower than these, but higher than the other metadata fields. 

This search for “social media” matches the title, subject field, and the abstract of this book record. As a result, this will sit high up the list of hits.

Screenshot of LibrarySearch for social media

<Term weighting – matches on rare keywords are weighted higher than matches on common terms.  For example, if a search is Yoruba books, the less common term "Yoruba" has a higher influence than the common term "book". 

Term frequency – the number of times a keyword or phrase is matched within a field is also considered.  For example, if the search term is nanobiotechnology, an abstract that contains five occurrences would score higher than an abstract of the same length that contains the term only once.

Stemming and alternative spellings – features such as stemming and alternative spellings are applied automatically.  If you entered the term ‘painting’ LibrarySearch would also search the ‘stem’ of this for words such as paint and painters. The same would apply for alternative spellings of the same word. You can search using one of these spellings and get hits for both - accessorize or accessorise; analog or analogue; theater or theatre.  Exact spelling matches will be given a higher score than alternative spellings.  e.g for the keyword, theatres, the results for "theatres" would get higher relevance scores than the results for "theaters" or "theatre". 

Phrase searching - entering a phrase in double quotes ("  ") limits results to exact phrase matches. For example, a search for "social media" (in double quotes) will return exact matches on "social media". 

Phrase and proximity match boost – if double quotes are not used for a phrase, matches on the exact phrases as well as close phrase matches are both given a boost in the score. For example: If your search is American history (without double quotes), the exact phrase match "American history" scores higher than a non-exact phrase match.  However, "American automobile history", and "American automobile history" will also score higher than, for example, a match on "American" and "history" appearing in different fields.

Exact title or title + subtitle match boost – the score is boosted for cases where search terms match a title or title + subtitle. For example: Graphic Design Theory -

Screenshot of LibrarySearch for graphic design theory

Static Rank
This represents the default ‘value’ of a search result and does not relate to keywords. Static Rank factors include:

Content type – items are weighted according to their content types. Academic content will gain a higher score. For example, journal articles are weighted higher than magazine articles or newspaper articles. Books are weighted higher than book reviews; Journals are weighted higher than conference proceedings. 

Publication date – recent items are weighted higher than older items. 

LibrarySearch uses carefully designed mathematical functions specific to each content type to maximize the effectiveness of this factor. For example, the penalty for having an old publication date is higher for journal articles than for books.

Scholarly/Peer Review – articles from "scholarly" or "peer reviewed" journals are boosted.

Highlight local collections – items in UCA Library collections are boosted.

Citation counts – publications with high citation counts will be given a boost in their scores.

Each record's Static Rank score is calculated from a combination of these factors: for example, a journal article published 5 years ago with 100 citations would probably have a higher Static Rank score than a journal article published 6 months ago with 0 citations. In this case, the benefit of the high citation counts of the first record outweighs the benefit of the recency of the second record.

The scores from Dynamic Rank and Static Rank factors are then combined to determine the relevance score of each record for the given search terms. The ranking of a search result set is determined by the final relevance scores of the records in the result set.

Other factors
Short and general topical queries (for example linguistics, global warming) tend to return more books, eBooks, references and journals among the top results, and long and specific topical queries (for example linguistics universal grammar, global warming Kyoto protocol) tend to return more journal articles among the top results.

Ways you can influence search results 

One of the easiest ways to influence and take control of search results is to use the filters provided on the left-hand side of the screen.  You can limit content types such as books and journal articles or full text online information or choose different date ranges, library locations and subject areas.

Screenshot of LibrarySearch for gender

Boolean operators
an also be used in LibrarySearch to influence the rank of hits.  AND, OR, NOT operators are supported. The operators must be written in capitals to ensure that they are interpreted as Boolean or used within the Advanced Search.  Boolean searches will also be subject to the relevance ranking algorithm outlined above.    

  • The AND operator – When there is no explicit Boolean operator between two terms, the AND operator is assumed anyway.  For example, if you search for sustainable fashion, you will get the same result set as when you search for sustainable AND fashion. However, the ranking of the results may be different since the first search (sustainable fashion) applies higher relevance scores to phrase matches and proximity matches on "sustainable fashion". 
  • The NOT operator – The NOT operator can be used to exclude a keyword from the search results.  Examples: “contemporary art” NOT photography.
  •  Advanced Search - Using the Advanced Search also allows you to have more control over your search results. Combine Boolean searches with other factors, such as selected content type and the ability to specify fields, such as title or subject.

Screenshot of Boolean operators and Advanced Search on LibrarySearch

Hopefully if your research plan has worked, you’ll have found some useful sources.  However, you don’t have to read everything you find and sometimes there are very good reasons not to use a potential source. The main criteria for selecting which sources to use are -

  • Relevance – is the content of the source relevant to the topic you’re researching? How will it enhance your work?
  • Academic standard – if the source needs to be of an academic quality, is it suitable for degree-level research (e.g. is it a source aimed at secondary / high school students rather than undergraduates)? This is in part a question of authority.
  • Authority – who wrote the source? What are their qualifications and what expertise and knowledge are they bringing to the subject? At degree level you should mostly be looking for people with professional qualifications (i.e. a qualified journalist) and / or academic status (professors, researchers). 
  • Reliability – establishing the reliability of a source is important as some information can be accidentally or deliberately misleading. Establishing reliability involves asking the following questions - 
    • Is there bias present (is what you’re reading pushing a particular ideology or point of view)? 
    • Is the writing balanced and does it present different points of view (considering different sides to an issue is a good marker of balanced writing)? 
    • Is evidence provided (presenting evidence is important for establishing claims and supporting an argument)?
  • Currency (how new / old is it?) – if you need up to date information then you need to make sure you’re accessing recent sources.

Test your understanding with the Identifying and Evaluating Academic Sources Interactive Tutorial.