Before you start searching it is essential to have a plan or strategy for how to approach your search and to know the techniques that will help you.
Make sure you have a clear plan at the start or you could waste valuable time on unproductive searches.
Do not give up if you are not finding good resources straight away. Developing effective searches takes time. Learning how to narrow a search from the general to the specific and use keywords and search strings will help you target relevant information more quickly.
Your search strategy comes from having analysed the assignment title and identified:
The generally accepted method of conducting a literature search is to move from the general to the specific. The best place to start is always the Library Search.
Use the Library Search to find basic texts on the topics you have identified. These will set the subject in context and illustrate current thinking.
Start with more general search terms as the Library Search cannot always satisfy very specific requests. For example, if you need information on the role of women in Indian cinema, start searching for ‘Indian cinema’ to find titles which may include information on the role of women. Use a book’s contents page or index to look for more specific topics.
In general, databases of journal articles and internet search engines are better able to cope with more specific search terms. Use journal articles for the most recent findings on your topics. See the Library Search and Databases pages for how to search for journals.
Adapting the keywords and search strings you use will enable you to broaden or narrow your searches to get better results.
General and specific searches
Carefully chosen keywords are the best starting point for search queries.
Start with the list of keywords you developed from your assignment title. You might find more useful keywords in your module guide, other handouts or core readings. Technical terms and names of individuals, places, etc. can be very effective. Remember there are no ‘correct’ terms. Your keywords may not be the same as those used by authors and websites so you need to be flexible in your approach.
- Try alternative words and phrases.
- Use the wildcard character ‘*’ to broaden your search. For example, the term ‘Buddhis*’ will include ‘Buddhist’, ‘Buddhists’, and ‘Buddhism’.
- A thesaurus or dictionary can provide ideas you might not have thought of. Many databases have an built-in thesaurus.
- Combine your keywords together using Boolean terms. See Search Strings.
- Avoid terms like ‘introduction’, ‘review’, ‘summary’ and other unnecessary words.
- Most search tools have options to narrow your search down. For example, the library catalogue lets you refine your search into different sub-topics and the A-Z databases let you limit your results to peer-reviewed articles only. See Search Tools for more examples.
Combining your keywords into search strings will enhance your search results and eliminate irrelevant material. This is known as ‘Boolean searching’.
There are three powerful words you can use to target your searches more effectively. They are AND, OR and NOT, sometimes called ‘Boolean operatives’. Use them to combine your keywords in different ways as follows:AND
- AND is used to combine different concepts, eg ‘politics AND media’
- AND narrows your search
- OR is used to allow for alternatives, eg ‘politics OR election’
- OR broadens your search
- NOT is used when the same keyword has different meanings
- NOT narrows your search
The Library Search will help you find quality assured information quickly. Many of the library's resources can also be accessed when you are off campus.
Always start with the library tools as they link to resources of the right academic standard for your assignments. You can find good resources on the internet if you use search engines skilfully and evaluate your results carefully. If you cannot locate specific resources you can try accessing other libraries through shared schemes like SCONUL Access. This section shows you how to use all these tools for finding information.
The Library Search is available from an online PC anywhere in the world. If you are off-campus, the Library Search is still useful as you can use it to find e-books and e-journals.Use your usual UEL username and password to log in to the Library Search. You can search without logging in but you need to log in to request items and see your saved searches. Use the ‘How to Search’ link inside Library Search to get help while you are searching.
See the useful guides and demos in "Related resources" for more detailed information on using the Library Search.
Databases are collections of electronic journals and other resources. You need to know which databases are useful for your subject before you start searching the individual databases.
Databases allow you to search through many e-journals with one search and therefore save you time. Make sure you familiarize yourself with databases early on in your university career as they will be an important part of your assignment research.
You can also use databases to search for other useful information such as statistics, government reports, British Standards, building regulations, marketing reports, company information, trend predictions, advertising materials and more.
Download the 'Subject databases' guide on this page for a handy reference list.
Use your Athens log in to access UEL resources off-campus. This is especially important for distance learners. Start with the Database A-Z list to choose a database and follow the off-campus link.
Always access the databases via the library home page and NOT the Athens website. The Athens website may be confusing as it displays resources which we do not subscribe to.
Use the 'Articles' tab in the Library Search if you know the title and author of the article you want to search for.
The databases are more useful if you are browsing for possible articles without a specific title or reference as you can search whole collections that are relevant to your subject in one search.
Search engines are simply tools. The better your search skills are, the better your results will be. Whatever you find, always evaluate it before you use it!
Google is just one of many search engines for searching the internet. Search engines might seem an easy option for finding information for your assignments as they return lots of results quickly but much of what you find may be unsuitable for academic purposes. Use the 'Making the most of Google' guide to help you develop your internet search skills.
The number one rule of web searching is to evaluate your results carefully. There is a lot of high quality information on the Internet but there is also a lot of incorrect or heavily biased information. See the Evaluating websites section for helpful advice.
Google and search strings
Subject gateways aim to provide access to reliable and up-to-date web resources for all subjects.
Subject gateways are internet search engines that search directories of websites relevant to particular subjects. The information they find is more likely to be relevant and quality controlled by experts than results from general search engines.
Two useful academic gateways are:
- The major UK academic subject gateway.
- Covers all the major academic disciplines.
- The Virtual Training Suite provides 60+ free Internet tutorials on using the web for education and research, written by qualified lecturers and librarians.
- Funding is uncertain beyond July 2011.
- Links mainly to UK-based academic subject gateways covering a wide variety of disciplines.
- Essentially a ‘gateway to gateways’.
- Hosted by Herriot-Watt University.
SCONUL Access is a collaborative scheme of over 150 university libraries. The scheme provides borrowing privileges for most postgraduate, part-time, distance learning and placement students. SCONUL Access also provides a reference only service for most full-time undergraduate students.
You need to present this email (either in print or on your mobile device) together with your UEL ID card at the library of your choice.
As a UEL student you can also search for resources in most academic libraries in the UK including the British Library itself. You will need your UEL ID card.
London has many academic libraries which you can visit if you need to supplement information gathered through the UEL Library. If you are outside London you can find an academic library closer to you.The British Library
This is the premier library in the UK and you can access its integrated catalogue, which lists more than thirteen million items.
To actually use the British Library, it is necessary to acquire a Reader pass directly from BL and this will require the production of two forms of identification as well as your UEL ID card.
If you cannot find a book or journal in the Library Search you can try an inter-library loan to request the item from another library. This is only available from your second year.
The national inter-library loan (ILL) scheme allows you to have an item you have been searching for delivered to you. Both hard copies and e-copies of books and journals may be available.To request an inter-library loan log in to the Library Search and select 'My Account'. See the 'Inter-library loans' guide for how to complete the process.
Under graduate students are restricted to 5 ILL requests per academic year. Postgraduate students are allowed 20 requests and research students may make unlimited requests.
Need other help?
Be proactive in seeking help if you need it. There are many people and services in the university that offer guidance on all kinds of areas related to your studies.
When you are researching your first assignment you may well find that you need other kinds of help and support. You just need to know who to ask or where to look and then make time to find what you need. The most important thing is that you take responsibility for your own learning. Many people are there to help you but only you can do it!