To obtain high-quality search results, it is essential to thoroughly explore and define your topic, and then determine the appropriate keywords. You can use general search engines, reference works, and scientific/review journals for this purpose.
Once you have formulated a well-defined research question based on your objective or given topic, you can identify a limited number of key terms and complement them with translations, synonyms, and related terms to create a comprehensive set of search terms.
Always keep in mind some essential questions: What is your exact objective or assignment? What are the limitations or restrictions? How far should you go in searching for information on your topic? What is the deadline for completion?
In the initial stage, you gather information about the topic to find relevant search terms and also to delineate and identify the possible subtopics it may contain.
You can do this by:
Tip: Search engines with clustering capabilities (like Carrot) are often helpful to quickly find subtopics related to a specific domain. These search engines display a list of subtopics or related subjects alongside the search results.
For inspiration, you can also utilize AI | Large Language Models (such as ChatGPT) to explore the various subfields of a topic. However, keep in mind the limitations of these tools: the responses are based on the available training data and may not always be entirely reliable.
After the initial exploration and delimitation, you formulate your topic into a specific and well-defined research question that typically answers questions like 'Who?', 'What?', 'Where?', and 'When?'.
You also determine whether you opt for a qualitative approach, focusing on the analysis of textual data, or a quantitative approach, centering around numerical data, or a combination of both.
Your research question is further determined by the type of study you wish to conduct. It can be descriptive, comparative, evaluative, explanatory, or focused on trends and relationships.
Suppose you need to write a paper on the role of energy in animal behavior. Based on the exploratory phase and a few simple questions, you arrive at a clearly delimited research question.
The research question must not be too broad. For instance, "Birds' display behavior" is too general as a research question. By using question word questions (W-questions), you can arrive at a more specific research question.
Research Question: 'What are the energy costs of birds' display behavior during the mating season in terms of their energy budget?'
Especially in clinical and evidence-based research, your research question can also be formulated as a PICO(T) or PEO question. You consider the following:
How does regular physical activity (I) compared to no physical activity (C) influence glycemic control (O) over a period of 12 months (T) in adult patients with type 2 diabetes (P)?
What is the effect of daily physical exercise (E) on academic performance (O) in school-going children (P)?
In your literature review, you will search for information on each of the queried factors.
To determine if you have a good research question, you can use the FINER framework (Hulley et al. (2007). Designing Clinical Research. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins)
In addition, these factors are also important to have a clear understanding of your assignment and goal:
By using the core concepts or keywords from your problem statement, you can conduct a highly focused search for the desired information.
The key is to find the most relevant information while minimizing irrelevant results by using as few search terms as possible.
You can create a high-performing set of search terms by supplementing the keywords from your problem statement with:
You can find inspiration in reference works and specialized dictionaries, but Large Language Models | AI can also help you generate a suitable list of search terms. However, caution is advised due to the limitations of these tools. The results are dependent on the available training data and should always be verified. The same caution applies to automatic translations of terms.
Narrow down your search terms sufficiently; they should precisely describe the subject of your search to avoid an excessive number of irrelevant search results. For example, if you are looking for information on human anatomy, search for "human anatomy" (and possible synonyms) rather than just "anatomy."
Most search engines and database search functions ignore capitalization, accents, and punctuation.
Combine your search terms with Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) to create an effective search query that you can use in a catalogue or database (e.g. the UHasselt Discovery Service).
Use truncation marks (wildcards) to find different variations of a search term (e.g. Herodot* for Herodotos and Herodotus or wom?n for woman and women).
Utilize quotation marks for exact word combinations (e.g. "Martin Luther King") and the advanced search functions of databases and catalogues. This allows you to search in different fields and filter your search results based on various criteria.
To find very specific and targeted information on your topic, you need to combine search terms deliberately. This can be done, among others, by using boolean operators (AND | OR | NOT).
This allows you to search for information that contains both search terms. If you simply enter multiple search terms one after another, the search engine will automatically combine them using the Boolean AND operator. In mathematical terms, this is called the intersection.
This allows you to search for information that contains at least one of the search terms. In mathematical terms, this is called the union.
This allows you to search for information that contains the first search term but not the second search term. In mathematical terms, this is called the difference.
You should make use of a truncation or wildcard symbol to easily combine similar search terms. The two most important truncation symbols are:
The wildcard '*' is used to replace one or more characters. Usually, you can use this symbol only at the end of a word stem.
The wildcard '?' is used to replace one character. You can use this symbol at the end of a word and, in some databases, even in the middle of a word.
The key is not to truncate a word too early or too late. If you are searching for information about obesity, it is best to type 'obes*' and not 'ob*'.
Please note: In a minority of available databases, the functions of * and ? may be reversed in a search query.
If you want to retrieve search results that must contain the entered search terms in the exact same order, place your search terms between "double quotation marks." This way, you can avoid irrelevant search results.
Filters are features that allow you to narrow down the search results in a search query. In online databases/catalogues, filters are usually available through the Advanced search option. Some common filters that you can find in the search function of almost every online database include:
With advanced search, you can often search across different fields simultaneously. For example, you can search for a specific title by a certain author. Below is an example of using different search fields and filters in the search interface of JSTOR - advanced search: