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Social Work: Introduction and Practice: Search Strategies

Consider when searching

Search results: Go beyond the first page

Many databases sort by "Relevance," but what does that mean? Databases use algorithms to determine what results will show up at the top of the list. Algorithms sound unbiased, and are often presented as being without bias, however, algorithms are created by humans. And everyone has bias.

Databases use various factors to determine relevance, such as impact factor, citations, as well as the number of times your search phrases show up in the item. Some databases weight more recently indexed articles higher, which means more recently published articles may be sorted to show up higher on the list. Some databases put more weight on the controlled vocabulary their indexers assigned to articles than on the author provided keywords or user created tags.

This means that the first page of results you see may not necessarily be the best articles for your topic, and it's important to go beyond the first page.

Further reading:

Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press: New York, NY.

Phrase Searching

Quotation marks should be used around a phrase or concept of two or more words. Doing this ensures that the concept will be searched for as a whole and not picked apart by the search engine. For example, typing death penalty without quotation marks could potentially retrieve all items that mention death, all items that mention penalty, as well as all items about death penalty. This could lead to results that seem to have nothing to do with your topic, e.g. funeral rites in India or penalties in hockey. For best results, use quotes.

For example: "death penalty", "death penalty" and race, or "death penalty" and "race relations".

There are differences between databases as well. Some databases use other symbols than quotation marks, such as {brackets} or others. Most databases will have a page dedicated to search operators specific to their databases.

Use the Truncation Symbol

Truncation is a technique that broadens your search to include various word endings and spellings. To use truncation, enter the root of a word and add the truncation symbol at the end.

trauma* = trauma, traumatized, traumatic, etc.

child* = child, children, childcare, etc.

Boolean Operators &. Parantheses

Boolean Operators are used to connect and define the relationship between your search terms.

The three Boolean operators are AND, OR and NOT.

Using Parentheses Using the ( ) to enclose search strategies will customize your results to more accurately reflect your topic. Search engines deal with search statements within the parentheses first, then apply any statements that are not enclosed.

Example: A search on (smoking or tobacco) and cancer returns articles containing: smoking and cancer; tobacco and cancer smoking; cancer, and tobacco; but does not return smoking or tobacco when cancer is not mentioned.

Boolean Operaators with Google Scholar

Boolean operators work slightly differently in Google Scholar.

The Boolean AND command is automatically implied in ALL Google searches – so you don’t need to use it.

Boolean OR must be in all capital letters, or else google will simply ignore it.

Example: ptsd OR “post traumatic stress”

Boolean NOT is the minus sign "-" and must be in front of each word you want to exclude.

Example: anxiety speech -public

Step 1: What is your research topic?

It  is useful to begin by formulating your research topic as a question:

  • How are children effected by witnessing  domestic violence?
  • Do abused women benefit more from group therapy  or individual therapy?

Step 2: What are your main concepts?

Choose the words that have substantive meaning  in your question:

  • children, domestic violence, witnessing
  • abused women, group therapy, individual therapy

Ignore words such as effects, relationship, impact, benefits, words that point to a relationship among concepts.  The main concepts will be keywords used in your search!

Step 3: Develop Alternative Terms/Keywords

t is helpful to think of synonyms or related terms for your main concepts:

  • children-- youth, teenagers, adolescents
  • domestic violence-- family violence
  • witness-- exposure, exposed
  • abused women-- battered women,  battered females, partner abuse