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Searching for Information: Search Strategy

How to effectively search library resources to retrieve relevant information

Research is an iterative process so you may find that you need to go back and forth through the steps before settling on a research question.

search strategy schema

As a part of a research strategy, there are several steps that you should do every time you start an assignment. 

  1. Understand the details, limits, and requirements of the assignment.
  2. Determine if you need a research question or a hypothesis
  3. Write a good research question or hypothesis

Research Question Or Hypothesis

According to Allen (2017) "Research questions explore tentative relationships between variables and represent the basic research interests...Ultimately, research questions are a statement of what the researcher wants to know about or understand upon the completion of the study." A research question usually doesn't make generalizations or predictions. However, a hypothesis is statement that is an educated guess that uses past knowledge to predict what will happen to the variables in the study usually this is used for quantitative studies. The similarity is that both will require you to do some background research to determine if either is "good" for your assignment. 

"Good" Research Questions or Hypothesis

Answer the questions to determine if your question or hypothesis is FINER. That is the characteristics of a "good" question or hypothesis for your assignment. 

Characteristic Ask Yourself
  • Can you complete the assignment on time?
  • Is there enough available information on your topic?
  • Can you get enough participants?
  • Do you have enough financial resources?
  • Do you enjoy your topic?
  • Will your audience?
  • Is the topic already discussed in the literature?
  • Does your research fill a knowledge gap?
  • Did you get the consent of participants?
  • Who will have access to the data?
  • Will it be confidential?
  • Do you use unbiased language?
  • Will your research be useful?
  • Can your results be applied in other situations?

After going through FINER you may have to change your question. That is all a part of the Research Strategy


"Good" Research questions also indicate which variables are being studied. In most cases, you only need to use the dependent and independent variables but the others will help you to complete a more compelling assignment.

Variable Explanation
  • The variable being tested
  • If the independent variable is change, there should be a change in the dependent
  • Plotted on the y axis of a graph
  • This is the variable that the researcher changes or controls for
  • plotted on the x axis of a graph
  • Related to either the dependent or independent variable so could impact the results.
  • Interacts with the independent variable so could impact the strength of the relationship between the independent and dependent.
  • Processes tha may not be observable but that still link the dependent and independent variables.


Research Question Is it good? Variables and Reason
How can mental health counseling by healthcare workers in Ontario be improved for 12-18 year olds?


Independent: 12-18 year olds

Dependent: mental health counseling

This would be a more senior level topic but it does satisfy FINER and has two variables.

What caused WWI?


No variables. This topic is much too broad. You could fill hundreds of books on the topic! It is a good starting point to help you decide on a question.
Do companies who provide flexible working hours have better employee retention? Good

Independent: companies who provide flexible hours

Dependent: Employee retention

At first this question may seem too simple but after some initial research you may find that different types of flexible hours have different outcomes.

Abraham Lincoln was the best American President? Bad This isn't so much of a question as a statement. It uses biased language. Instead you could rewrite to "Why do Americans think Abraham Lincoln was the best American President?" Or "Over the past 100 years, has the American Opinion of Abraham Lincoln changed?"

Hypothesis Is it Good? Variables and Reason
Tulips have a faster rate of growth than roses when watered equally. Good

Independent: water rate

Dependent: growth rate

This is a logical hypothesis that is testable.

Julius Caesar was born in Rome by a C-Section Bad This isn't a prediction. While this is statement is debated it isn't a hypothesis. You could turn this into a research question. "Why do historians say Julius Caesar was born in Rome by a C-Section?"
Crime levels are higher during the full moon. Good

Independent: timings of the full moon

Dependent: Crime levels

This is testable and passes the FINER test for a research assignment.

The next step in the Research Strategy is to take your Research Question or Hypothesis to decide which words will get you the information you need.


Words that you think describe your topic: 

  • good to use when you search for or a new concept or jargon, they are flexible and can be found anywhere in the record (title, abstract);
  • you may get too many irrelevant results;
  • keyword search is usually the default simple search in databases.

Subject terms

Words that database use to index or describe your topic. 

  • controlled and less flexible;
  • precise search and relevant results;
  • subject search is usually in the advanced search option.

How to identify keywords?

  • Brainstorm and record findings taking notes

  • Use dictionaries to find synonyms, antonyms, near-synonyms. 

According to Merriam-Webster, a dictionary, there are a number of synonyms of consumers depending on its meaning: end-users, clients, customers, guests, patrons among others.

  • You may also try the Credo Reference database that integrates an additional tool for concept mapping.

  • Use a thesaurus, subjects, medical subjects, and index proposed in databases.

  • Open the record to find additional subjects or keywords describing your topic



Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT)

Boolean Operators are used as conjunctions to combine or exclude keywords in a search, resulting in more focused and productive results. 

In the basic search box, you can use Boolean Operators to improve your search results:


Searches all of the terms entered in the query.

Ex. (air AND pollution). If one term is contained in the document and the other is not, the item is not included in the resulting list


results contain either the one or the other term or both. Put your search terms in the bracket and the OR operator in the middle,

Ex. (Canada OR USA). 

Use it to broaden your search.


searches only the first term that do not contain the term if you want to search for the animal and not your star sign!

ex. (Capricorn NOT astrology)

Use it to narrow your search.


Wildcard and Truncation

You can use the symbols in the search box


The question mark can refer to any letter. Example, search for "ne?t" will return results with neat, nest, or next


Useful for alternate spellings. Finds words that have or don't have a letter in place of the #. Example, search "colo#r will return results with color or colour


Use the asterisk to search for all variations of a word. Example, search "comput* will return results of computer or computer. It can also be used for the whole word. 


If you want to search for a multi-word phrase, use quotation marks around the words to get results that use the words in exactly that order. For example, search “human rights” instead of human AND rights.




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