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POL 130: International Relations: Search Tips

Searching Databases & Library Catalogs

There are many techniques you can use to search more effectively and efficiently. Use these tips to become a more sophisticated researcher. Be sure to browse the common research mistakes to avoid research pitfalls.

Search Terms - how do we develop search terms?

  • Remember that research is a conversation, so pay attention to the words that experts in your field are using when they talk about your topic. Use these words when you search.
  • Identify key concepts and terms relating to your topic
  • Consider synonyms and alternate spellings
  • Utilize reference books for search term ideas as well as a thorough overview of your topic
  • Google
  • Wikipedia

 Use the Right Resources - when doing research, you need to be looking in the right spot

  • Use the Research Guides link on the library's homepage to explore appropriate databases for your topic
  • Don't overlook books - they can provide detailed treatments of topics, especially if you find that articles are too narrow
  • Talk with a librarian for more suggestions
  • Talk with your professor
  • ALWAYS be evaluating sources, both in terms of their purpose (look at the tips under Thinking About Sources above) and their reliability

Use Search Features in Databases & Catalogs - there are ways to use the interfaces to conduct more sophisticated and targeted searches

  • When you find a good article or book, look at the descriptors or subject heading field; you will usually find pertinent, linked seach terms that relate to your topic.  Click the links to locate other items that have the same tags.
  • Use the limit features of the database.  Often you can limit to specific publication dates, source type (like peer reviewed), language, etc.  The limits are especially useful if you've done intial searches that have yielded an overwhelming amount of results.
  • Use the AND OR NOT option in databases.  Use AND to combine terms.  Use OR to search multiple synonyms at once.  Use NOT to weed out unrelated materials (for example, if you are looking for voting behavior NOT in the United States).

Search the Way that 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. For more information, consult the bibliographic trace tab.

Idea Mapping

  • Idea mapping is especially useful during the midpoint of your research. Take time to reflect on your research question, the sources you've gathered so far, and how they do (or don't) help answer your research question. There are lots of examples of idea mapping online; in general, it helps to jot down your research question and list subtopics separately, then tie your sources to the subtopics they are addressing. Ask yourself if you have enough information for a particular subtopic. Idea mapping often reveals gaps in our research, so use idea mapping to find more sources.

Common Research Mistakes - here are some common mistakes we see when students are conducting research

  • 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 & information professionals about issues right away

Ask for Help

  • Think of librarians as your personal research consultant.  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.  Stop by the Reference Desk to chat 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.


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Julie Gilbert
Hello! I look forward to working with you. If you have any questions about research, an assignment, or the library in general, please contact me - (jgilber2 @ You can also reach any of the reference librarians at folke @ or via the Ask Us! button on the library's homepage.
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