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Philosophy: Developing a Search Strategy

Resources for the USD community interested in Philosophy.

Coming up with Search Terms

Begin at the Beginning

1. Think about your research topic

  • What do you want to write about?
  • What do you know about this topic?
  • What do you need to know or what would you like to know more about in this topic?

2. Make some notes

  • What are some main ideas you can pull from your answers to the questions above?

3. Narrow it down

  • Who?
    • Are there specific people you can name and focus your attention on?
    • Is there a specific population you might address? Consider age, gender or sexuality, race or ethnicity, social or economic groups, and other ways humans might group other humans
    • Who is involved?
    • Whom does it affect?
    • Identify stakeholders and their opinions
  • When?
    • Is there a chronological period or era you might narrow to?
    • Century. Use the phrasing 21st century / 20th century / 15th century (etc) to search for materials about a specific century
    • Decade. Use the phrasing 1960s / 2010s (etc) to search for material related to a decade
    • Era. Use the phrasing Reformation / Reconstruction / Antiquity (etc) to search for material related to an era of time, not limited to a century or year
  • Where?
    • Where did your focus begin? End? Mainly occur?
    • Should you narrow to a location?
    • Consider all the ways to geographically delineate the world
      • Country, Region, State, City, Hemisphere, etc
  • How?
    • How does one aspect of your topic affect another?
    • How do other researchers view your topic? How might you incorporate their views to make your own research stronger and richer?
  • What? Why?
    • What is the issue or problem you're addressing? Is there something to pinpoint and solve, or are you uncovering an issue?
    • Why should your exploration, research, writing, and presentation matter to others?
    • These questions will help you craft your research question and thesis statement.

Now you're ready to search! Pull search terms from your answers to the questions above.

Write down main ideas and phrases, not complete sentences.

Get creative with synonyms or alternative ways of phrasing a keyword or idea.  If you get stuck searching for resources, expanding the way you think about your topic can really help.

Now you're ready to search!

Search Strategies

Keyword Searching:
Basic keyword searches are a fine place to start. 

  • Single words expressing your concept
  • Make sure you express all concepts related to your interest within each search
  • Identify synonyms for each concept
  • Search terms with more than one word in quotes (ex. “native american”)
  • Truncation symbols (usually * or $) help search words with multiple endings (singular, plural, etc…  Such as pollut* = pollution, pollute, polluted, polluting.)
  • Also, keep a list of useful keywords and search terms to use in successive searches and other databases.

How to Find Specific Kinds of Articles:
No method of searching for specific kinds of articles is fool-proof.  These tips, however, will be of great use:

  • For finding literature reviews:  Entering search terms such as literature review, overview, systematic review, or overview of the literature, all help to identify articles that are literature reviews.
  • For finding empirical articles:  Entering keywords such as “study” or “survey” help to retrieve an article that’s empirical, or evidence-based.  Words such as “methods” or “methodology” (qualitative or quantitative), participants, and “results” or “findings”, also help to identify an empirical article.  Review the article’s abstract as well as the title when seeking these words.
  • For finding primary research:  Using previous studies found in review articles is one way of locating primary research articles for one’s own literature review.  NOTE:  Also find new primary research on your topic in order to update the scholarly research in the field.

Maximizing returns from your search results:

  1. Check to see if keywords are provided within article title pages that might inform your successive searches. 
  2. Identify leading journals and search the recent issues for the latest information in your area of interest; use references from those articles to gather literature reviews, empirical articles, and primary research sources.
  3. When you start seeing a specific author’s name popping up frequently, you’ve found an expert; make sure you include the work of experts in your field to ensure that your literature review is scholarly and timely!

Subject Heading Searches:
Check the subject headings within specific articles to refine successive searches for more focused results

Scholarly / Peer-Reviewed:
Many databases give you the option of checking a box if you wish to retrieve only scholarly / peer-reviewed articles.  I suggest that you absolutely do this, AFTER you’ve done an initial search to cull all potential useful keywords and subject headings from all the articles in the system, peer-reviewed or not. 

Use an annotated bibliography to take notes and prepare to write

Bibliography: a record of sources used for research 

Annotation: a summary or evaluation

Annotated bibliography: a bibliography with annotations!

Review my slideshow Annotated Bibliographies: Notes to your future self

Source Types

The slideshow linked here has some useful guidelines for thinking about types of sources for your research. Basic definitions and examples are given for:

Primary sources

Secondary sources

Scholarly sources

Popular sources

Types of Sources Slideshow

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