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Academic Research Paper Search Strategy

Taking a few moments to think about what information you need, and how you are going to look for it, can save you a lot of wasted effort. It can also help you to find more relevant results which can enhance the quality of your assignment or research. Follow the steps below to create a successful search strategy:

1) Select appropriate information resources to use

Think about what kind of information you need:

  • an overview of a new topic? Encyclopaedias or review articles in journals can help.
  • the latest academic research? Recent journal articles will be more up-to-date than books.
  • an historical perspective? Books can set out the development of a subject area.
  • media reports? Newspaper articles present contemporary perspectives.
  • official reports? British or international government reports, or those of other organisations such as the United Nations or the National Health Service.

Use the right "finding aid" to cover this type of information:

  • Library Catalogue(s) for books, journals, reports, videos, etc
  • Databases such as Web of Science for journal articles and conference proceedings
  • Databases such as Nexis UK for newspapers

2) Choose appropriate Keywords

Look at your assignment title or research topic and underline the key words or phrases. For example: Discuss the relationship between poverty and teenage crime.These concepts will be your basic search terms. Write these terms as column headings across a page.

3) Definitions
If you are not sure of the meanings of the words then use dictionaries and/or encyclopaedias to check. Remember the Library has a number of subject specific reference works.

4) Synonyms and alternative spelling
Are there other words or phrases which mean the same or are related to your basic terms? Using a dictionary or thesaurus can help with this. Also, think about differences between British and American spellings. e.g. behaviour or behavior; oestrogen or estrogen. Some databases do not search for both spellings automatically. Write any alternative terms in the columns below your original search terms.

5) Boolean operators

Use Boolean Operators to combine your search terms logically. The most commonly used operators are AND and OR.

AND will find only references where both your search terms appear e.g. poverty AND teenage crime. This will help to narrow your search down to more relevant items. Write AND across each column

OR will find references which contain either one or both terms e.g. teenager OR youth. This will broaden your search and help you find references with synonyms or related terms. Write OR down each column between each term.

You should now have a search strategy grid which shows clearly which terms you need to put together with AND and which with OR to get the most relevant results. (See example)

What are Keywords?

Keyword Searching is the most common form of online searching and should be used when you need to know what materials the library or database contains on a specific topic. You should search by keyword if you are unsure about the author or title of an item. Keywords are significant words used to describe information in a catalog, database or search engine. The keywords you choose for searching have a large impact on how many relevant records are retrieved.

Keyword searches are especially useful when:

  • you have incomplete title or author information
  • your topic combines two or more concepts
  • you do not know the exact subject headings for your topic
  • you want to link terms from different parts of a record, such as an author's name and a word from a book title

TIP : Use a thesaurus to help you find synonyms for your keywords

Developing Keywords

Since keywords are a very important piece of researching, it is equally as important to create a list of these words or phrases that will help your search.  Normally, your keywords will be concepts or ideas that are related to your main topic.  Please view the video below for more information on how to create keywords.

 (Thanks goes to the University of Houston Libraries)


Boolean Operators

Boolean operators help to narrow or broaden your search. The most useful Boolean operators to connect your searches are AND, OR, NOT.



AND finds records containing both terms. This narrows the search. For example:

  • body AND image
  • female AND appearance

OR finds records containing either one or both terms. This broadens the search. It can also be used to account for variant spellings. For example:

  • image OR identity
  • female OR girl

NOT finds records containing the first term, but not the second term. This narrows the search. For example:

  • female NOT teen
  • males NOT adolescent

You can use more than one logical connector in the same search statement.

  •  body image AND female NOT teen

 (Thanks goes to the Pfau Library at the Californa State San Bernadino Campus)


When to Use Quotation Marks ""

Use quotation marks when you want to search a specific phrase.  This will make your search more direct, as the database or catalog will search for your keywords in the specified order.  It is a great strategy when your keyword is made up of two or more words.

Our example below is "body image".


If you search the keywords body image without the quotation marks, several resources with other words that may be unrelated to your search will also be found.