Effective search

1. Where to start

The image below - from Mark Saunders's textbook, Research Methods for Business Students - gives a good idea of how you can make your research effective.

Note, that after:

  1. deciding on the research questions and objectives, and

  2. deciding on your search parameters (i.e. how far you want to go in your research and what will be the boundaries),

  3. the next step should not be searching (e.g. using Google or other search engines), but generating search terms.

Your lecturers, coaches and research supervisors will help you with the first two steps. This guide mainly deals with the third one - deciding what to search for and where.

2. Two mistakes to avoid

When researching, we all come across roadblocks that waste our time. For example:

  • searching in the wrong places (e.g. referring to academic journals before building some basic understanding of the topic)

  • searching without planning what to search for.

This guide will help you avoid them.

3. Use the right sources at the right time

There are many different sources and they differ from subject to subject. The common sources to most disciplines are:

  • Textbooks explain theories and concepts. They are particularly helpful for building a broad understanding of the subject, and are also used for finding useful search terms.

  • Trade publications are published by professionals for professionals. They are good for understanding industries and current practice. Trade publications can be found in academic databases your library subscribes to. They can also be found on the internet (not all of them are free to access).

  • Academic journal articles and conference papers are peer-reviewed reports of research outcomes. Also called scholarly publications, they cover very specific topics and provide in-depth analysis. Start using them after building a general understanding of the subject.

4. Define search terms

4.1. What are search terms?

Search terms are the words and phrases we use for finding publications and data relevant to our research topics.

A good search term can be:

  • one word, normally a noun, e.g. strategy, programming

  • several words used as a stable expression, e.g. cyber security or corporate social responsibility, for one notion (a "thing").

Good search terms are like tags or keywords we use to describe photographs on social networks.

Many academic databases do not like sentences and phrases which are not search terms, e.g to what extent is relationship marketing effective in British football?

In this sentence, there are three meaningful search terms ("things"):

  • Relationship marketing

  • British

  • Football

Other words are not useful for searching - they do not describe any particular "things"

4.2. Write your search terms down

It is a good idea to use paper and pencil when searching either in printed or online publications. Start with and regularly update either a list of search terms or a mind map – whatever works best for you.

This helps to visualize the topic we are researching and see connections and gaps between our search terms.

4.3. Use textbooks to generate search terms

Textbooks explain theories and concepts and provide a broad overview of areas of knowledge. For that reason, textbooks (printed and electronic) are particularly helpful as the initial source for research, e.g. to decide what aspects should be covered in our research project.

Textbooks are also useful for deciding what search terms to use. For example, textbooks can help you to discover and understand specialist vocabulary which we do not use in our day-to-day life. Often, they have glossaries - small dictionaries of terminology used in the field of knowledge.

4.4. Broader, narrower and alternative search terms

When searching, you can expand your vocabulary by using broader, narrower and alternative search terms. To understand it better, let us continue researching the topic we have already started discussing:

To what extent is relationship marketing effective in British football?

For football, a broader term is sport. There may be books and academic journal articles exploring the role of marketing and relationship marketing in sport. They are likely to be relevant to football too.

We can search, for example, for sport AND "relationship marketing":

  • AND (typed in capitals) is a command to combine the results of searching for both search terms - we are only interested in publications where both sport and relationship marketing are discussed

  • taking two or more words in quotation-marks ("relationship marketing") is a command to search for all those words together - exactly as typed

Premier League could be a narrower term for football. By learning how Premier League clubs use relationship marketing you can make conclusions relevant to football in general.

Consider searching for alternative terms too: different authors may use different terminology for the same notions ("things"). For example, instead of football they may use soccer.

Instead of British, authors may use "in Britain" or "in the UK" or "in the United Kingdom"; they may also write about English football. Outside the UK, people refer to Premier League as EPL.

4. Use citation chaining

Citation chaining means using reference lists and bibliographies in textbooks, academic journal, and articles for finding other relevant publications. They list the publications the authors found useful for writing their works. We can use their findings to enrich our own research. This is called backward citation chaining as we discover the sources published before the publication we started with.

Academic search engines can show (see the Cited by link in Google Scholar) more recent publications that reference the works we found useful. This is called forward citation chaining as we discover sources published after the publication we started with.

See also Google Scholar’s Related articles link for what Google thinks may also be of relevance to our research.

5. Use journal article metadata

Academic journal articles and conference papers contain metadata - information describing those publications. The abstract and subject terms are part of the metadata.

In the next screenshot, the abstract for the article about dynamic pricing gives us a handful of search terms we may also consider searching for: privacy concern, buying strategy, fair price perception, etc, etc

7. Repeat your search

Let us have a look at the diagram from Saunder's textbook again.

It suggests that searching for information for research (literature and data) is not a one-off activity. As we understand the topic better, we may decide that there are other relevant aspects we have not considered yet. We may also become aware of other helpful search terms, and this should lead us to repeat searching using the freshly defined search terms.

A piece of paper and pen are useful throughout this process, helping us to remember and see the connections and gaps between our search terms.

8. Recommended literature

The following books may be used to understand the process of writing a literature review: