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POL 110: US Government and Politics: Search Tips


Research isn't a linear, predictable process. We often hit roadblocks. Our search terms don't yield the results we hoped for. We find a great article but it's in a language we don't read or speak. We can't seem to find enough sources to answer our research question.

The problem is not hitting obstacles, it's giving up when we do. Research requires us to be flexible and adaptable. Above all, it requires us to persevere through roadblocks. Research is iterative, not linear. This means as we gather information, we're also refining our research topic or question. We then see which information gaps we have, so we then do more research to find additional sources. It can be messy but exciting. It requires time, patience and perseverance.

This page outlines some of the blocks you might hit, as well as ways to navigate those stumbling points. Rather than give up, I encourage you to 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 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 (who is an expert in the field!) 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

Sometimes a particular word or phrase seems to unlock your search magically. As you explore your topic, keep an eye out for key words and phrases that the experts use. These words and phrases can be magical, as you've now got some of the words that experts use when they discuss your topic.

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. If you're having trouble, check with your instructor or a reference librarian.

Specialized Search Features

Databases and library catalogs have specialized search features that will help you conduct more sophisticated searching. Use these various features to save yourself time and headaches.

  • Look at the subject headings (sometimes called descriptors). These are specialized terms given to individual books and articles. You can find them in most databases by clicking on the title of a book or article that looks useful. Look for the subject headings. In most databases, you can click any 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., which can be useful to weed out results that aren't relevant.
  • 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

It's highly possible you will encounter research materials written in a language you don't read or speak. This can be frustrating, but 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. (But 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, like English. 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 us find materials for a project in a different course, we naturally would use it again. But be sure to expand your resources, too. There are a lot of specialized databases for various areas that you should use in addition to others that worked. 

  • 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 Religion or GWS or Philosophy or...
  • Ask 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. Scholars read interesting studies or articles or books in their field; scholars 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. This page has more information on how to conduct a bibliographic trace. 

Ask for Help

  • Librarians are personal research consultants. We can help you think through possible search terms, suggest specific resources to search, 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 here to help, plus they are experts in the field as well. So talk with them about your research & any problems you're having.

Common Research MIstakes

Here are some common mistakes people tend to make while conducting research. We all do at least some version of this, but it's good to recognize when we fall into some of these traps. 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 does my work fit with and address existing scholarly conversations on the topic?”
  • Only using ”familiar” databases and not using the ones best suited to the topic
  • Skipping books entirely
  • Not being systematic / reflective / intentional
  • Not returning to previous useful databases/catalogs with new search terms
  • Not talking with professor & librarians about issues right away
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