Dissertation Research: How to Improve Online Searches

Carrying out a properly structured online search is essential for hitting on relevant information for your dissertation. You can systematically narrow down, widen or cut out irrelevant references by linking the words AND, OR, NOT to your initial set of references that you come up with. Here are some practical ways of structuring your search:

  • Specifying the years you’re searching (for example, 2002–2007)

  • Using a dictionary or thesaurus to ensure that you’re covering all the search terms

  • Making use of keyword searches (or ‘scope notes’) for topics that use popular rather than academic terminology

To help you widen the scope of your search, try adding an asterisk (*) to the stem of your word. For example, if you input politic*, the search finds all words with that stem, bring up references with politics, politician, political in the title of the article and in the abstract.

You can also use asterisks for covering different ways of spelling, for example, for finding both ‘systemize’ and ‘systemise’ if you input systemi*e, which throws up titles and abstracts using both spellings.

  • Narrowing your search by using AND: for example, ‘cities AND planning’ so you don’t get thousands of results for each word, but only results for both.

  • Avoiding completely superfluous and potentially enormous sets of useless references by using NOT: for example, ‘phrases and utterances, NOT speech’.

  • Using OR for widening your search, by putting your search terms in round brackets, for example, ‘(dreams OR trances)’.

  • Limiting your set of references to English language articles only – (unless of course you happen to be fluent in Chinese or other languages, in which case you’re well away).

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