Plan an effective search strategy

For efficient use of time and energy, carefully define the scope of your literature review right at the beginning. How extensive do you want it to be? Do you want to get a broad list that includes records even slightly related to your topic, or just a few most relevant ones? To what extent do you need to rely upon informal channels versus formal ones?

Then, be prepared for a bit of trial-and-error. Identify a limited number of concepts that may be useful to describe the research question at hand, and choose terms and accompanying logic that seem to define them. Precision is imperative. Searching for instances of abroad term like ecology would be akin to drinking from a fire hose, summoning thousands of hits. The list that is returned often will display the total number of items found, but only show them in batches.

Run a computerized search using your initial set of terms, and look over a sample of the records it retrieves. Are they mostly relevant? If not, revise your search. To increase the number of records, expand the lists of terms connected by OR. To retrieve fewer records, narrow the search by adding terms or concepts connected by AND or (very carefully) by NOT logic. Most databases will let you define a time period or subject area for your search; many Internet searches still will not. Another useful capability of some online databases is the option of using an index tree or thesaurus. The vocabulary is arranged hierarchically, allowing the searcher to scroll through the list and select topics to broaden or narrow search parameters as desired.

When you are satisfied with the records obtained from one information channel, but feel you do not have everything that you need or want, begin all over again with another. The results will probably be different.

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