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WR121 Pesznecker

A guide to web & library research for Sue's awesome WR121 students.

Write out your research topic/thesis statement

The first step to brainstorming search terms is having an initial topic or thesis statement to work with. Not there yet? Spend five minutes choosing a focused topic, then come back here.

Ready?

Step 1. Take a piece of paper or open up a document and write down your topic or thesis statement.

Example:

Research question: What is the relationship between COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and vaccination rates?

Step 2. Circle or highlight the most important individual ideas that make up your topic.

Example:

Research question with key terms circled: COVID-19, vaccine misinformation, and vaccination rates.

Words you don't need to search for and why: 

  • it, to, and, of - articles and prepositions can usually be ignored because they are so common.
  • should, be, use, for, relationship - adjectives and words that indicate a relationship between two ideas can usually be ignored because they may eliminate otherwise relevant results from your search. The more search terms you add to your search, the fewer results you will get.
  • pro, con, for, against - rather than using words that convey opinions about topics, use nouns that help you learn about your topic(s) from every angle.

Brainstorm search terms

Step 3. Think about other words or phrases that have similar meanings to each idea – basically, brainstorm synonyms. Write down at least one similar or related term for each idea.

Brainstormed search terms. COVID-19, coronavirus, COVID pandemic. Vaccine misinformation, conspiracy theories, rumors, disinformation. Vaccination rates, immunization rates.

If you’re having a tough time thinking of terms, do a basic search on the main idea. (In this example, COVID vaccine misinformation might be the main idea.) Skim through an article or webpage for additional or alternate terms – sometimes seeing how an author writes about a topic helps.

Add quotation marks around phrases

Step 4. Look for terms that are phrases, meaning more than one word. Place quotation marks around these phrases.

Brainstormed search terms. COVID-19, coronavirus, COVID pandemic. Vaccine misinformation, conspiracy theories, rumors, disinformation. Vaccination rates, immunization rates. All two-or-more-word phrases have quotation marks around them.

What does this do?

These quotation marks will force the database or search engine to search for your phrase exactly as you have it written, rather than separating and searching for each word individually. Remember, you do not need to add quotation marks around single words.

What are Boolean operators?

Boolean operators are words that we use to link two or more keywords while searching. Linking your keywords with the words AND, OR, and NOT help to expand or narrow the results you get while searching.

AND

  • AND tells the catalog or database you are searching in that you are requiring both terms to be in your results. Linking two keywords with the word AND ensures that all of your search results have keyword #1 AND keyword #2.
  • Use this Boolean operator when you are comparing, contrasting, or otherwise relating two keywords!
  • Example: "peanut butter"  AND jelly 
    • Will only show me results that contain both peanut butter AND jelly, because I want both of them.

OR

  • OR tells the catalog or database you are searching in that you are okay with either keyword (or both keywords) appearing in your search results. Linking two keywords with the word OR ensure that all results with have either keyword #1 OR keyword #2 OR both.
  • Use this operator to link synonyms (words that mean the same thing). 
  • Example: jelly OR jam
    • Will return results that include jelly, jam, and jelly and jam. This is because these words are interchangeable and I'm okay with seeing results with either word.

NOT

  • NOT  tells the catalog or database you are searching in that you only want results containing one keyword, but NOT the other. Linking two keywords with the word NOT will only return results containing keyword #1 but NOT keyword #2.
  • Use this Boolean operator when you have noticed that searching for keyword #1 also returns results about keyword #2, but that is not what you are looking for.
  • Example: jelly NOT grape
    • Will return results that contain jelly, but NOT results that contain grape, because I'm not looking for information on grape jelly.

Set of three Venn diagrams showing the relationship between keywords when AND, OR, and NOT are used in a search.

Image credit: Slippery Rock University

Build a strategic search

Now you have a list of important words and phrases. These are your search terms - what the library catalog or database will use to find you awesome articles, books, and more.

But beware! Do not dump all of these words into a search box. Use the library catalog or database’s Advanced Search tools to organize your ideas and build a strategic search. For help with this, contact a CCC Librarian or try out our Search String Builder (linked below).

Search terms expertly used in CCC Library's catalog Advanced Search page.

Test yourself

Want some more practice brainstorming search terms?

Use the sample topics below and 1) circle or highlight the most important individual ideas that make up the topic and 2) brainstorm search terms for each idea.

  • Sample topic #1: Should U.S. states and cities insist that food stamps be spent on healthy foods to reduce the prevalence of health problems linked to obesity?
  • Sample topic #2: Should US adoption records be open rather than sealed?
  • Sample topic #3: To what extent does the private life and private morality of a public figure affect his or her ability to serve the public interest?

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