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1.5: The Research Process- Settling on a topic, identifying keywords, and retrieving the information you need

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    We will approach the research process in this chapter by looking at an example of student research. Before that, though, we need to cover some basic, essential terms.


    Have you ever searched online for a product to buy?

    Then you have probably used limiters. Suppose that you wanted to purchase a new laptop computer. You may go to the website of a large retail or electronics store and search “laptops” and you will be presented with hundreds of different models to choose from. How do we narrow down our search results to something more manageable? We use limiters. To the left of our search results we may see a long list of these limiters, allowing us to limit our search results to only a certain price range, or to only Mac or PCs, or to a certain display size. Library limiters work the same way, letting you limit your search results to only books and ebooks, or only scholarly articles. You can limit your results to only certain publication date ranges, to specific languages, and even to only search results where the full text of the item is immediately available.


    We conduct keyword searches in Google all the time.

    The basic process is clear—we type in a word or a string of words and Google provides us with a ranked list of websites on which those words appear. This is how we find products to buy on websites, how we find the music we enjoy on iTunes or Spotify, and this is how library tools provide you with good, relevant search results. In a basic search, the library tool will add to your search results whatever books or articles or films include the keywords you are searching.

    The more of these keywords you add, the narrower and more specific your search results wil become. Note though that if the keywords you choose to search are not the same terms that authors are using in their work, you may not see those items in your search results.

    Boolean Operators

    When librarians use the phrase “Boolean operators,” they refer mainly to the words AND, OR, and NOT. Combining your keywords with Boolean operators allows you to build fairly sophisticated and specific searches. Having a working knowledge of Boolean operators and integrating them into your searches will make your future research both quicker and more effective. Let’s look at each.


    AND will narrow or focus your search results, requiring that every one of your keywords must appear in any books or articles that show up in your search results. If you are interested in car navigation technology, for example, you will definitely want to see “car” and “navigation” appear in every item that shows up in your search results. You might begin with:

    Cars AND navigation

    Those initial search results may still be too broad, though, so you may want to require that a third keyword be present in any items in your search results:

    Cars AND navigation AND GPS

    If those search results are still too broad, you can always require additional keywords be present in your search results by adding more keywords to your search (each separated by “AND.”)


    The OR Boolean operator comes in handy when you are uncertain of which keyword is most effective, or when different authors are using different language or spellings to describe their topic. For example, one author may be writing about Dostoyevsky, while another writes about Dostoevsky.

    It’s the same author, just slightly different spellings. To avoid missing out on a terrific book or article on account of spelling differences, you can use “OR”: Dostoevsky OR Dostoyevsky

    Now as long as one of the two spellings appears in an item record, you will see that item in your search results.

    “OR” can also be helpful when there is more than one way to say thing you are searching.

    Earlier we searched: car AND navigation. But what if an author used the term “automobile” instead of “car?” We might miss their book or article.

    To avoid that we might search:

    (Car OR automobile) AND navigation

    Authors can use different language to describe the same topics, so be sure to brainstorm any synonyms or related terms and then combine them with “OR.”


    “NOT” excludes content from your search results. You may not use this Boolean operator often, but it can be useful at times. Suppose we ran a simple search for newspaper articles on cars. We may notice a number of search results related to the Pixar film Cars. If these unhelpful search results are distracting us from finding better articles, we might search:

    Cars NOT Pixar

    Any of the articles that reference Pixar will be weeded out of our search results. If our search results for information about apples are being overwhelmed by articles on iPads and iPhones and MacBooks, we might tweak our search to read: Apple NOT ipad NOT iphone

    Now any of our search results that mention iPads and iPhones will be weeded from our search results.

    How Keywords Work

    We conduct keyword searches in Google often daily. The basic process seems clear—we type in a word or string of words and Google provides us with a ranked list of websites on which those words appear. This is how we find products to buy on Amazon and how we find the music we enjoy on iTunes or Spotify

    Choosing a Topic to Finding Articles: a scenario

    Colleen’s composition instructor has assigned a research paper to the class. Colleen has never written a college-level research paper before and is uncertain about the best topic to write about. Recently a cousin of Colleen mentioned some negative experiences on Twitter and remarked on how social media can make otherwise pleasant people yell at total strangers. Colleen thinks this might be a promising idea for a research paper, and she consults with her instructor.

    The instructor is supportive of Colleen’s idea, but feels the topic is too broad. She needs to narrow her topic to a more researchable question. Colleen accepts this, but struggles. She muses on her initial topic idea: “How does Twitter affect the way people talk to each other?” What aspect of this topic most engages her? How can she narrow it further?

    The journey from choosing a topic to completing a research-based assignment is called the research process. It is made up of all the necessary steps you complete to be successful in finding the information you need. Choosing a topic is an important early part of that process. 

    Flexibility is a virtue when choosing a topic, and your finished topic may not always look exactly like your original one. Your original topic might be too broad (as in Colleen’s case) or too narrow, or there may not be enough information on your topic, or you may discover a more interesting one as you conduct your research.

    Once you have a general idea of your topic, you may be tempted to head straight for the library databases to begin your search, and you may not initially see a lot of useful information. This does not mean you have a bad topic. Begin instead with a search for background information, especially if you are not familiar with the subject area. This will help to better inform and define your topic.

    As you search for background information, look for keywords that you may be able to use in future searches. These may be words that you see over and over as you read through the information on your topic. Your keywords may also be synonyms or related terms.

    Colleen reflects on her topic. Twitter seems like a good, solid keyword. But is there a better, more succinct way of describing “the way people talk to each other?” How about “communication?”

    She now has two keywords: Twitter and Communication. Because she wants to find articles that mention both Twitter and communication within the same article, Colleen includes the Boolean operator “AND” in her initial search: Twitter AND communication

    As you recall, Boolean operators like AND, OR, and NOT allow researchers to construct more complex searches, providing them with only search results that include their keywords, or else excluding content from their results.

    Still, Colleen is not satisfied with her initial search results, so she considers other language that authors might be using to write about the topic.

    Instead of “Twitter,” she tries “social media.” Instead of “communication,” she tries “personal communication.” She finds a few useful results this way, but still isn’t satisfied. She reflects more on how Twitter affects the way people talk to each other. It certainly seems like people are meaner on Twitter than in real life. Was there a useful keyword in that? A keyword related to anger or aggression?

    Anger and aggression are synonyms, and she wants to find articles that include either of the terms. She knows the Boolean operator “OR” will be helpful, and searches: 

    “social media” AND “personal communication” AND (anger OR aggression)

    By using “OR,” she knows articles using either term will appear in her search results, provided the other two keywords were also present.

    One search result Colleen notices is on cyber bullying. Cyber bullying and social media could be an excellent topic to write about. Not only has she narrowed her topic sufficiently, she has already found some articles.

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