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A Guide to Physics: Search Tips


Research isn't a linear, predictable process. Research requires us to be flexible and adaptable. Research is iterative, not linear. This means as you gather information, you're also refining your research topic or question. See what information gaps arise, do more research, and repeat the process. It can be messy and exciting. It requires time, patience and perseverance. 

This page outlines some of the snags you might hit, as well as ways to navigate them. Rather than give up, take a step back, assess your search approach, and try something new. And please contact a librarian with any issues - we can help you solve them!

Develop Search Terms

The best way to discover the right search terms to use is to figure out how experts in the field are discussing the topic. There are many ways to do this:

  • Skim your course readings to see if there are specific terms that keep popping up
  • Read a reference book for an overview of your topic, including search terms; find reference books in the library catalog or browse the shelves - main floor, Beck Hall side
  • Ask your professor if there are specialized terms you should be using
  • Skim Wikipedia articles about your topic 
  • Brainstorm synonyms and other similar words that might describe your topic
  • Ask a librarian for help - we are skilled at helping you uncover potential search terms and approaches
  • Do some initial searches and see what terms are used in the articles and books you find

Once you identify some of these words and phrases, use them as search terms in various databases and the library catalog. Even if you've already searched these resources, try again with the specialized vocabulary and see if you find new resources. 

Specialized Search Features

Databases and library catalogs have specialized search features that will help you conduct more sophisticated searching. 

  • Look at the subject headings (sometimes called descriptors). These are specialized terms given books and articles. You can find them in most databases by clicking on the title of a book or article and then looking for the subject headings. Then, click a subject heading that looks relevant to bring back every other item that has the same subject heading.
  • Most databases let you limit by format, date, language, etc. Some let you limit by study or experiment type.
  • Use keywords to search most databases; they don't always respond well to phrases. Example: "India exports" tends to work much better than "What are some of India's major exports?"

Materials in a Language You Don't Speak or Read

You might encounter research materials written in a language you don't read or speak. Here are a few tips to navigate those situations.

  • Run the title and the abstract of an article through Google Translate to see if the article would be of use. While you could translate the entire thing using Google Translate, be aware that the translation will never be perfect. Instead, find a friend who speaks or read the language to see if they will read it with you. (Be sure not to take advantage of their time!)
  • If you find articles or books that look useful, see if the author has written materials in a language you do read. Do a Google search for the author to see if you can find their personal or professional website, which will hopefully contain a list of their publications.
  • Visit with a librarian to discuss alternative search strategies to help you find appropriate materials in a language you do read.

Search in the Right Places

It's easy - and normal - to default to resources that have worked in the past. If Google Scholar or Academic Search Premier helped you find materials for a project in a different course, you naturally would use it again. But be sure to expand your resources. There are a lot of specialized databases for various areas that you should use, too. 

  • Use the Research Guides to find recommended databases & other resources for various areas of study
  • Your topic may be interdisciplinary; the Research Guides will help you find resources if your topic overlaps with other areas
  • Check with a librarian for ideas of where and how to search

Search how Scholars Search

Scholars commonly explore the conversation surrounding their topics through bibliographic traces. They read articles or books in their field and then mine the citations in those works to find related research materials. They also look for more recent research materials that have cited the first resource. The Research as Conversation page has more information on how to conduct a bibliographic trace. 

Ask for Help

  • Librarians are research consultants. We can help you think through search terms, suggest specific resources to search, help you track down sources and point you in directions you may not have considered. There are many ways to get in touch with us.

  • Your professors are also there to help, plus they are experts in the field as well. So talk with them about your research & any problems you're having. Visiting during office hours is a great idea!

  • Writing Center assistants are an excellent resource to help you think through and refine your writing for any project.

Common Research MIstakes

Here are some common mistakes people tend to make while conducting research. Everyone does some version of this, but it's good to recognize when you fall into some of these patterns. The tips on this rest of this page will help you self-correct.

  • Lack of persistence, especially not going the extra mile to find hard copies of useful sources
  • Conducting research in terms of “finding the answer” as opposed to contemplating “how is my work informed by the existing scholarly conversations on the topic and how will it contribute to that same conversation?”
  • Only using ”familiar” databases and not using the ones best suited to the topic
  • Skipping books entirely in favor of articles; this doesn't work in many fields
  • Not being systematic / reflective / intentional in your research process
  • Not returning to previous useful databases/catalogs with new search terms
  • Not talking with professor & librarians 
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