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IWU OCLS Tutorials: Develop a Search Strategy

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Getting Started


Getting started on a research project can be overwhelming (and sometimes the hardest part of the research process!). This page explores how to develop a search strategy that you can use to find the most useful information in a timely manner.

This process can be broken down into four major steps:

  1. Choose a Topic
  2. Identify Main Concepts & Keywords
  3. Choose Databases
  4. Analyze & Improve Your Results




Review The Assignment


Before you begin your research, you must understand the requirements of the assignment. If you have any questions about an assignment, it is best to contact your instructor before beginning your research.

Assignment requirements are important and will determine what types of sources you need. 

Your assignment says to use 2 scholarly, peer-reviewed references. So what does this mean? Well, it means you must find, read, and analyze two academic journal articles that are peer-reviewed to write your paper. You will also need to reference them correctly on your references page and provide correct in-text citations within your paper's text.


Some good questions to ask yourself:

  • If the topic is not already set, what topic do I want to write about?
  • How many pages should it be?
  • How current must the information I use be?
  • How many sources do I need?
  • What kinds of sources do I need? Books, articles, websites? Scholarly or popular articles?



OCLS Digital Library


The OCLS "digital library" is all the materials you can access outside the physical library, including ebooks, streaming videos, and subscription databases. 


You can search everything IWU owns or subscribes to by typing your search terms in the OCLS QUICKsearch search box on the OCLS website. This search box is called a discovery tool and is like Google for OCLS but without ads and sponsored links. 


A database is a collection of articles or other items that can be searched, and IWU pays a subscription fee so you can use them. Examples of subscription databases include general reference databases like EBSCO Academic Search Complete, JSTOR, or ProQuest Academic Complete and subject-specific ones like the business databases EBSCO Business Source Complete and ABI/INFORM Collection. 


There are several benefits to using subscription databases. 



One obvious benefit is free and easy access to publications you can't find on the open web with a Google search, and that would otherwise be expensive to access. Unless you have your own subscription to these publications, you can generally only read a few articles on the publisher's website each month. When OCLS subscribes to a database that includes these publications, you can read current and back issues for free. 



Another benefit of subscription databases is they are organized in a way that helps you find what you need. Even when you are searching general databases, you can limit your search to if the library has full-text access, when the articles were written, who wrote them, and whether or not they have undergone an important quality control process called peer review and many other useful criteria. Conducting focused searches in subscription databases with almost always give you more relevant results than you would get from a Google search.   


Reliable Results 

Still another benefit of subscription databases is that the results they return are more likely to be reliable. That's because the information included in subscription databases is vetted and qualified people make decisions about which publications should be added to them. This oversight reduces the advertisements and other junk that can dominate the early pages of your Google search results. There are no guarantees, but the information you find when searching in subscription databases tends to be fairly reliable. 


Full-Text Databases 

The subscription databases mentioned here are what we call full-text databases. There are databases where you can find entire articles, like what you typically find when using Google Scholar. 


A&I Databases 

Another kind of database is an abstract and indexing (A&I) database. A&I databases are usually subject-specific and are used by advanced researchers. A&I databases do not give you the whole article but will give you a summary or abstract. That's the downside. The upside is you can search in more precise ways than you can using keywords.  


If you find something interesting in an A&I database, then you can track down the full-text article by searching for the name of the scholarly journal using the Journal Title Search or by searching for the name of the article in QUICKsearch

What are you interested in and curious about? Is there a question you would like answered?

Choosing a topic, you are interested in will help you remain engaged in your research.

Avoid choosing a topic because you think it will be "easy" because that can backfire. 



How do I choose a topic?


Read the article from Purdue OWL about choosing a topic. 





Need ideas for a Topic?


Here are some library databases that provide overviews of topics that can help you generate research ideas:




Your Topic - Too Much? Not Enough?


Too Broad 

If your topic is too broad, you will be overwhelmed with too much information, and much of it will be irrelevant to your research.

Examples of topics that are too broad include:

  • Global warming
  • Health care in the United States
  • Terrorism


To narrow your topic, make your search results more manageable and applicable.

Try making your topic more specific:

  • Global warming and carbon offsets
  • Health care in rural communities in the United States
  • The portrayal of terrorism by media outlets in the United States 


You can also narrow a topic by:

  • Place (obesity in the United States)
  • Time (women's liberation in the 1970s)
  • Population (impact of technology on toddlers)


Too Narrow 

If you are not finding many or any resources, it may be that your topic is too narrow. 

Examples of topics that may be too narrow include:

  • Revenue for the limousine service industry in Waco, Texas. 
  • The health benefits of jazz. 
  • The economic forces of soldiers during the battle at the Alamo.


Also, it could be there is no answer to your question - the research just hasn't been conducted on that aspect of your topic. Congratulations! You may have identified a gap in the literature. 


Just Right

With some work, you should be able to identify a topic that is neither too broad or too narrow that you find interesting.


Keep in mind that you may have to come back to this step after doing some research on your topic in order to narrow or broaden your topic. 



Ask a Question


The final step is to take your topic and create a research question. 

A topic can be too broad, but a question usually has an answer. 

  • What is the difference between the greenhouse effect and global warming?
  • Does access to healthcare in rural communities in the United States affect life expectancy? 
  • How does the portrayal of terrorism by media outlets in the United States affect people's attitudes and beliefs? 


Here are some resources to help you create a research question:

Convert Questions to Keywords


Unlike Google, most databases do not use a natural language search. You need to break your question down into keywords and terms to create an effective search. 

Example Question: "What is the impact of having the media in the courtroom?"

  1. Identify Keywords: (typical keywords will be nouns and verbs)
  • Impact
  • Media
  • Courtroom 
  1. Identify alternative words for keywords: (synonyms and words that express similar concepts)
  • Media: journalist, journalism, newspaper, news, cameras
  • Courtroom: court, trial
  • Impact: affect, effect, influence


A thesaurus can help you think of other search terms.


Now that you have identified some keywords, you will need to think about how to combine them for the most effective search. 



Combine Keywords



I entered all the keywords and alternate keywords "impact affect effect influence media journalist journalism newspapers news cameras court trial" into the database, but I didn't find anything useful. What am I doing wrong?


Don't panic.

You just need to use these terms along with Boolean search operators so the database knows how it should combine them. 


Boolean Searching

Boolean Searching is a type of searching that allows you to combine keywords using operators like AND, OR, and NOT. 



AND narrows a search by telling the database that ALL keywords used must be found in an article in order for it to appear in your results list. Search for two or more concepts that interest you by combining descriptive keywords with AND. 



OR broadens a search by telling the database that any of the words it connects are acceptable. This is particularly helpful when you are searching for synonyms



NOT narrows your search by telling the database to eliminate all terms that follow it from your search results. This can be useful when you are interested in a very specific aspect of a topic but wants to weed out issues you aren't planning to write about. 

Use NOT with caution as good items can be eliminated from the results retrieved. 

For example:

  • Boolean AND search: media AND court
    • All results will include both words media and court
  • Boolean OR search: media OR reporter OR news
    • Each result will have at least one of the words, but not necessarily all. This option returns more results than when using AND
  • Boolean NOT search: media NOT newspapers
    • The results will include the word media, but will not include anything with the word newspapers



Keywords vs. Subject Terms



  • They are important words or phrases that describe the key concepts of your topic.
  • When you search for keywords, the database looks in any part of the article (e.g., title, abstract, author, text, etc.) for the keyword.
  • Using keywords can return too many or too few results because the database is only searching for the word or phrase you typed in.
  • Many times, the search results are irrelevant and not about your subject. 


Subject Terms


  • Subject terms are words that have been given to an article and identify its subject and main topics.

  • These words are pre-defined by the database.

  • You must know what the Subject Term is to search for them.

  • Subject Terms can be found in the databases’ Subject Terms or Thesaurus link, usually found in the top menu.


OCLS QUICKsearch Listed under each article Subjects
Business Source Complete  Top Menu Thesaurus
Academic Search Complete Top Menu Subject Terms

ABI/Inform Complete

Beside Advanced Search Thesaurus


  • Search results will be more relevant than a keyword search since the articles will be about your subject. 

Additional Tools


Other ways to broaden or narrow your search:


Phrase Searching

When you are searching for a phrase or term (that is longer than one word), you need to put it in quotations, so the database knows to search for those words together, 

  • Placing quotes " " around two or more words will tell the database to search for that phrase. 
  • Example: "mass media"



  • Broadens your search. 
  • This search is used to find words with alternate endings or spellings.
  • An asterisk (*) is used as the truncation symbol. 
  • Examples:
    • Court* will find court, courts, courtroom, etc. 
    • Journal* will find journal, journals, journalist, journalism, etc. 
    • News* will find news, newspaper, newspapers, etc. 


Complex Searching

  • This is sometimes referred to as nested searching. 
  • This can be a combination of your search terms with Boolean operators, plus truncation and phrase searching. 
  • Example: (impact OR influence) AND "mass media" AND court*
  • This tells the database to do the following:
    • Search for the word impact or influence in the parenthesis. 
    • Search for the phrase within the quotation marks, mass media
    • Search for the truncation of words that start with court. 
    • Combine all three searches with the Boolean operator AND



IWU Online Campus Library Services provides access to many different types of databases and resources. The requirements of your assignment and your topic will determine the type of database you should use. 


Choosing a Database


Use the OCLS Find Your Database page to help you select a database.

To see all the subjects use the Subject dropdown on the All Databases A-Z page


Library Search vs. Individual Databases


The OCLS QUICKsearch will show results from a wide variety of resources and materials, including newspapers, books, multimedia, primary source documents, magazines, and journals. QUICKsearch allows you to locate content in almost all of the library databases in one search. This is a good place to get started with your research.


The OCLS QUICKsearch can be found on the OCLS homepage in the search box area. 


  1. Enter your search terms and then review the results. 

Searching OCLS QUICKsearch for renewable energy

  1. The search results can provide you with clues for your next steps that you can use in OCLS QUICKsearch or in individual databases. 

QUICKsearch screen labeled



Learn the Basics of Searching OCLS QUICKsearch


Open Video in New Tab



Books or Journals



Books are a great place to start your research. They offer in-depth information on a topic, but may not be as current as other sources of information. 

OCLS has a collection of ebooks that you can search. 




Articles in magazines and peer-reviewed scholarly journals are good sources of current information. This is where you'll find the latest research. 


You can find thousands of articles in magazines and journals in the OCLS databases. Three good places to start are OCLS QUICKsearch, EBSCOhost, and ProQuest. 


If you are looking for a specific journal, use the Journal Title Search tool




Can I Just Google It?


We love to search Google because it's fast, free, and easy to use. But it can also be overwhelming in the number of search results. Not to mention that it's hard to verify the facts and reliability of the sources


OCLS provides access to Google Scholar, which searches for scholarly literature across multiple disciplines and sources. Google Scholar can be connected to the IWU Library to cross-search OCLS resources to see if the article is available in full text in our collection. 


On the Google Scholar results page, look for links that say next to an article. If you see that, you should be able to follow the link to access the full text of the article through the IWU Library. 



Learn how to Search Google Advanced & Google Scholar 


Open Video in New Tab



Too Many Results?


Don't panic. This is normal and can be fixed.

Below are a few tips to help you revise and narrow down your search to get more relevant information on your topic. 

  • Review the abstracts.
    • Are they applicable to your topic?
  • Look for additional terms and keywords.
    • In some cases, you fill find that the industry or different authors use different termiology. 
      • For example: alternative energy = green energy, renewable energy, clean energy
  • Use the Subject Terms. 
    • The Subject line below each record list the subject terms for that article.
    • Use these terms in your search to find information that doesn't just mention your keyword and is about your topic.
    • Remember to change the drop-down of the database you are using to search for Subject Terms or Subject Headings. 
    • For example: online networks = subject terms are online social networks and social media




Put off the Training Wheels - We're Advanced Searching Now


Almost every database offers an Advanced search link.  

This will allow you to search for terms in a specific field. 

  1. Title
  2. Author
  3. Subject
  4. Publication title



Advanced Searching Tricks



Limiters are used to reduce the number of items retried and make the ones you get more relevant. In most databases, these limiters can be found on the search results page or on the Advanced Search page. 

  • Full-text
    • The library owns a copy, and you have immediate access. 
  • Peer-reviewed or scholarly
    • Returns only peer-reviewed or scholarly items. 
  • Particular author(s) or publications
  • Specific subject terms
    • A librarian or indexer reviews the material and assigns subject terms so the items will be about your topic. 
  • A specific date or date range
    • Helpful when your assignment requires you to have articles written within a specific time (e.g., 5 years). 


Proximity Searching

The closer in proximity the terms are, the more likely they relate to one another. 


Question: "Is leadership learned or is it an innate ability?"

Search: (innate w2 leader*) or (learn* w2 leader*)

This will find the terms within two words of each other.


Some databases use the "n" instead of the "w" for near. Each database handles searching differently, so you will want to review their help section for search tips. 






Introduction to OCLS

Research Help





Research Help


Do you need help with a specific research topic? Contact Online Campus Library Services and request a Personalized Search Plan!


Personalized Search Plans (PSPs) tell you where to go, what to do, and how to do it. Your PSP will suggest the best online database(s) and search term(s) to use. Depending on what kinds of information you need, your PSP might help you to find appropriate print books, e-books, or journal articles.

Each PSP includes step-by-step directions to find trusted sources for your assignments and customized to your needs.

To request your Personalized Search Plan, submit your request with our Online Request Form. In the form, let OCLS know what kinds of information you need – books, e-books, journal articles, websites, or peer-reviewed or research-based information.


PSP requests are answered in a minimum of two (2) business daysnot including weekends.


OCLS is closed Saturday, Sunday, and all university holidays and holiday weekends, so we encourage you to ask for your Personalized Search Plan early in your workshop weeks whenever possible.

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