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Search Strategy

1. What are the main concepts of your topic and what keywords might you use when searching?

Example topic: Does playing violent video games lead to violent behavior in adolescents? Key concepts are in bold.

Other possible keywords: Media violence, aggression, popular culture, teenagers or youth, psychological aspects, social aspects.

Modify your search strategy after you begin searching. Use the power of the databases (limiters, suggested subjects, and more) to further develop your search. Use broader concepts when searching the online catalog for books.

2. Determine what information you need. Follow your instructor's syllabus carefully. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many sources do I need? (Did your instructor give you a number?)
  • What types of sources do I need? (Books? Articles? Websites?)

3. Get background information on your topic. Use our online reference databases, listed on the left, to gather information on the broader context of your topic. This preliminary research will also help identify more keywords for searching.

TIP: Start early! You can try using the Search Planning Worksheet below from Middlesex Community College, and this Assignment Calendar from the University of Minnesota.

Keyword Searching

Keyword Search

  • When searching in databases, you generally cannot search effectively by typing in a question or sentence. It is most effective to search using essential concepts, or "keywords".
  • Keywords describe your topic. They can be individual words or phrases. They can be chosen from the sentence you create to define your research topic.
  • Once you choose the significant words, you can then come up with synonyms, or words with similar meanings. All of these can be keywords to use in forming your search.
  • Keyword searching is available in almost all databases. Many databases require you to explicitly describe the relationship between keywords using special connectors ( words like "and" "or" and "not") to associate your keywords in various relationships.


You've chosen the topic "alternative fuels" for a research paper. To help you focus this rather broad topic, you put it into the form of a question or sentence:

What are the types of alternative fuels being used or developed for automobiles?

Usually, the nouns and adjectives in your sentence or question will give you a good idea of what your keywords will be. In this case, the phrase "alternative fuels" and "automobiles" are the significant keywords.

From these keywords make a list of synonyms to use as alternatives. Since different writers will describe the same thing using different words, it's good to arm yourself with a variety of keywords so you don't miss important information.

alternative fuels automobiles
natural gas
hydrogen fuel cells
motor vehicle


You may need to do some background reading in reference sources before coming up with some of the terms you see above.

Here is a link to a video from Kent State University Library about searching databases using keywords.


Identifying Keywords

Keywords are the main ideas or concepts of your topic question. Keep a list of these words because you will use them when searching for information on your topic. Brainstorm related terms, broader terms and/or narrower terms related to your topic in order to expand your searching.  

When searching, string your keywords together with “and” rather than entering the entire research question. Mix and match terms depending on results.

Example: coffee and memory and undergraduates

What Sources Do You Need?

Once you have decided on a topic, you need to think about the best sources to get your information. Answering the questions below will help you decide what kind of strategy you need.

Do you need books?

  • Do you know very little about your topic?
  • Do you need background material, an overview, or the history of your topic?
  • Is your topic a broad subject?
  • Did your professor require that you use reference sources or books?

If you answered yes to many of these questions, you need books.

Do you need magazine or journal articles?

  • Is your topic of current interest?
  • Is your topic relatively specific?
  • Do you need the latest research on your topic?
  • Can you describe your topic in a few keywords?
  • Would you benefit from reading how an expert on your topic writes about it?
  • Did your professor include words like scholarly, academic, refereed, or peer-reviewed articles or sources in your assignment description?

If you answered yes to many of these questions, you need magazine and journal articles, to be found in databases such as Academic Search Premier and MasterFile Premier. 

Do you need newspaper articles?

  • Is this in the news now or very recently?
  • Do you just need facts presented very succinctly?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you need newspaper articles.

Reference Starting Points

Try one or more of these reference tools for: 

  • Expert-written articles
  • Topic organization
  • Bibliographies

Some reference databases you might use include: