Part 3. Develop your Search Strategy

9 Strategy #1: Start with Just the Keywords

The first strategy in effective research is to start with a basic keyword search of your topic. Keep the focus on just the main concepts, or keywords, of your question. Typing a complete sentence or question into a search box, whether you are in Google or one of the library’s research tools, will not give you as comprehensive or relevant results as just entering the two or three keywords that best reflect your question.

See what happens when you enter your search question, in natural language, directly into the library’s Summon search:

The question is “Should vaccinations be mandatory for school-aged children?”

(Click on the thumbnail for a larger view.)

Summon Search Natural Results
Search results from natural language query

Only a little over 1,000 results come back, which is not as many as you might expect considering that Summon searches everything the library has in its collection. Furthermore, the results are rather evenly split between journal articles and books.

Now, repeat the search again, but with just the keywords that are central to the question you are researching. Removing the non-essential words in the question would leave you with something like this:

“Should vaccinations be mandatory for school-aged children?”


The search below was done using mandatory vaccinations children.

(Click on the thumbnail for a larger view.)

Summon Search Keywords
Search results using keywords

This search results in over 15,000 items, with many more journal articles. That’s because in the first search, Summon is looking for items in which ALL of the words of the search query are present; in the second search, only those three terms need to occur in the results. Furthermore, the words left out of the question are not essential to the overall strategy of the query.


Remove bias

Avoid any words which may imply a bias in the results: negative, positive, good, bad, benefits, harms, effects etc. Remember, you are searching for a balanced treatment of the question, and including biased or leading terms could skew the results of your search.

Consider what would happen if you included the term “anti-vaxxer” in your search. You would most likely end up on websites with inaccurate information.


Tip: Improve your Summon search

Learn some useful tips for doing better Summon searches with thisĀ short video.

ACTIVITY: Focus on the keywords of a research question



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Doing Research Copyright © 2019 by Celia Brinkerhoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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