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ECON 460: Research Methods (Carney): Searching

Searching for Articles (Use the Databases!)

In most cases, you will locate journal articles for your research by using tools called research databases -- large, electronic collections of references for articles of many different types and on many different topics, put in one place where you can search the whole collection. 

Unlike Google, which reads every word in every page of every document from beginning to end, the library catalog, and some of our research databases, can usually only see basic information about articles or books -- the titles, summaries, and maybe some subject keywords. This is why searching for sentences or entire phrases works in Google but not in the library resources.  

What Am I Really Searching?

There are two different ways in which research tools tend to function. 

Some tools -- Google and other web searches as well as certain databases -- conduct what is called a full-text search, which scans every word of the document(s) being searched from beginning to end. 

Others, including the majority of our research databases and the library catalog, conduct what is called a bibliographic or metadata search. These tools scan only the metadata, or descriptive information about the documents they contain -- titles, abstracts, subject keywords and other info. This is why searching for sentences or entire phrases often works poorly in the research databases, and why Google produces so many more matches. 

So which do you choose? 

bibliographic search will bring you fewer results, but will be tailored to results that mention your terms in the descriptive information (and therefore, are more likely to be relevant). 

 full text search will bring you a greater number of results, but more of them are likely to be irrelevant (for example, if your search term appears only once in the document in an off-hand mention). However, it might catch some articles that you might not see otherwise, and may help you find articles whose bibliographic information uses different terminology to describe your topic. 

You may want to experiment with tools that conduct both kinds of searches, to get the widest range of resources on your topic. 

Building Your Search

Here are some general tips to guide you in choosing your search terms:

Use keywords or brief (2-word) phrases instead of sentences -- one or two for each part of your topic.

Use concepts and other nouns as your keywords.  Think of words that are likely to be used in titles (or that you have seen in titles).

Depending on your topic, you may want to include specialized terminology, including concepts, types of methodologies, etc. 

Remember to look for and include alternate spellings

If your keywords aren't turning up many results, you may need to:

  • Try thinking of synonyms or other ways of phrasing your topic. If you can find one or two relevant articles, check to see what subjects are listed for them and try to build keywords from there. 
  • Try a broader search (broader topic, broader date-range, etc.).
  • Try a different database.