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Module C Searching

Computer study area in the mcclay library
Read the following information carefully and then complete the short quiz.

You can then move on to Module D: Plagiarism and Referencing

The following topics are presented in this module: 

  1. Searching step by step
  2. Evaluating searches
  3. Using general Web / online sources

By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • understand what type of information you are required to find at university
  • develop an effective strategy for obtaining academic resources
  • evaluate the sources you find
Searching step by step

What type of information are you required to find at university?

Studying at university differs from studying at school or college in three main respects:

  1. You will be expected to use a wider range of sources.
  2. You will need to work with a greater volume of information.
  3. You will be expected to show more independence when working with information you need for your course.

The range of information sources you will be expected to use include:

  • library catalogues
  • printed and electronic books
  • printed and online journals
  • databases
  • web search engines

If you have been given a reading list, find the suggested books and journal articles using the library. If you need to search for information about a particular topic by yourself, a search strategy helps you clarify and focus your search.

Step 1: Clarify your search topic

It can be useful to write down your search topic as a question or as a search statement. This can help you identify the key concepts of your search. Consider the following example of a search statement: 

Discuss the impact of social media on mental health amongst teenagers.  

The key concepts in this example are:

  • social media  
  • mental health
  • teenagers  

 Step 2. Think of synonyms  

You can make your search more effective by thinking of similar words which can be used to express the same concepts. For example, the concept teenager can be expressed in a variety of ways including teen, young person, young adult, adolescents, adolescence etc. Be aware that academic literature often uses technical terms, rather than day-to-day language. Also, it can be useful to consider broader or narrower concepts to search for. E.g., consider searching for the term social media, if searching for specific examples (such as Facebook, TwitterInstagram etc.) does not provide you with useful results. 

Here are some example keywords for the search statement above:   

social media

mental health


social network  or networking or Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook or Twitter

wellbeing or anxiety or depression

adolescents or young people or young adults

 Step 3. Structure your search 

The next part of your search strategy is to decide how best to combine your keywords using ‘AND’, ‘OR’ or ‘NOT’. This logic is used by library catalogues, search engines and databases and is sometimes referred to as ‘Boolean Logic’ (named after the mathematician George Boole). To search for a specific phrase, put the entire phrase within quotation marks.

“social media” AND teenagers

This search will only retrieve results which contain both terms - social media and teenagers - within a single source

“social media” OR “social networking”

This search will find sources containing either the terms social media OR social networking

Twitter NOT Facebook

This search will only return results that mention Twitter and it will specifically exclude any matches that mention Facebook.

Truncation: You can use the asterisk (*) as a truncation command to find versions of your search terms with different endings (e.g. searching for teen* will find books or articles on teen, teens, teenager, teenagers etc.).   

Step 4. Review your results  

The final part of your search strategy is to have a look at the results of your search to see if they look useful. If your results do not look relevant, you may need to go back to step 2 and consider if there are different words which you can search for.  

Even if your results look relevant to the search topic, you should check if they meet your other requirements. For example, the publication date will tell you whether a book or journal article is up-to-date, or possibly obsolete. Also, many databases will offer options to filter your results by other criteria. If available, it can be a good idea to filter your results to include only articles from peer-reviewed journals. This will ensure that general, non-academic sources are excluded from your results.     

If your search results are still not what you were hoping for, do not give up as a successful search will often take several attempts. Your university library may also provide advice on how to make your search strategy more effective.