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Search Strategy Worksheet

Before searching indexes and catalogs you should clarify the information you are seeking by developing a search strategy. This worksheet presents a four-step process for creating a search strategy and gives tips for entering your search in indexes or catalogs. These resources are listed under Articles and Databases and Books on the HSU Library webpage.

Further information on some of the ideas presented -- free text keywords, controlled vocabulary, word truncation, boolean operators, nesting -- is found in the Research Roadmap tutorials on Topics and Searching.

Creating a Search Strategy


Clearly state your topic in one or two sentences. Be as specific as possible.



Examples:    I want to find information on how home schooling affects social development.
  I want to investigate the seasonal patterns in the vertical distribution of phytoplankton.


Underline or number the main concepts represented in the topic summary completed above. Concepts are the different ideas which make up each unique search topic. Most topics can be broken down into two or three main concepts.

  1   2  
I want to find information on how home schooling affects social development .
  1   2   3  
I want to investigate the seasonal patterns in the vertical distribution of phytoplankton .


In the Your Search Topic section below, create a list of words or phrases which describes each of your numbered concepts identified in Step 2. In making a list of keywords consider the following:

  1. Use "free text" words and phrases likely to appear in the title, abstract or fulltext of literature you are attempting to retrieve. Try to think of appropriate synonyms or variant forms since a variety of words and phrases could be used to describe the same concept.
  2. Use "controlled" words and phrases added by an indexer to each reference in an index or catalog. These are useful for uniting under one standardized term a concept described by several synonymous words and phrases. Use the thesaurus or indexing guide for the index or catalog you will search for a list of these "controlled" words and phrases. For the HSU Library Catalog and most other library catalogs it is Library of Congress Subject Headings. Many databases have a thesaurus that lists their "controlled" words.
  3. In developing keyword lists consider possible hierarchical relationships within a particular concept. For example, with a taxonomic concept are you only interested in locating research on a particular species or is a broader taxonomic classification also of interest; or for a geographic concept, are you only interested in a particular country or is the broader region also of interest?
  4. Use word truncation. Examine each keyword to see if it can be truncated with a symbol (e.g., *, #, ?, +) to retrieve all variant forms after its "root" form, such as plurals. For example, prevent* will retrieve prevention, preventing, prevented, or prevents. To find the correct truncation symbol, consult the help section in the database you will be using.

This list of keywords is dynamic. As you proceed in your search for desired information, and as your personal knowledge increases, your list of appropriate keywords is also likely to grow and/or be refined.

Sample Search Topic:

Concept 1

home schooling
and Concept 2

social development
social skill*

Your Search Topic:

Concept 1

  Concept 2

  Concept 3


Use logical (Boolean) operators -- OR, AND, NOT -- to connect the words/phrases and concepts which you have listed in Your Search Topic above. Follow Steps A and B below.

Step A: Within each concept connect words/phrases with the OR operator. OR broadens a search by specifying that any of the listed words can appear in the same concept or article.
  concept #1: socialization or social development or social skill*
  In addition place parentheses before the beginning word and after the last word in each concept if you are using the OR operator. This will avoid computer processing confusion.

Step B: Connect different concepts with the AND or NOT operator.
  concept #1 and concept #2
home schooling and social development
  NOT narrows a search by specifying that a word or concept must not appear in the same article. It is designed to eliminate unwanted words or concepts, but its use can be dangerous since it may also eliminate relevant articles.
  home schooling not home instruction
concept #1 not concept #4

Tips for Entering Your Search Strategy

search form

Having developed a search strategy you are now ready to enter it into the index or catalog you have selected to search. A sample search box from an index is shown above. To enter your search strategy use the following general search tips in addition to using the specific instructions for inputting keywords in the specific database you are searching.


The concepts unique to your topic are often a mixture of specific and broad ideas. A useful approach is to identify the most specific concept of your topic and search that one first. If this initial search retrieves only a few references, just browse through them and identify the references relevant to your topic. If your search retrieves many references, repeat your search and add another concept using the AND boolean connector to decrease your results.


As described in STEP 3 above try to use "controlled" keywords since they bring together similar ideas under one standardized word or phrase that may be described in the literature by several different keywords. If you do not know what "controlled" keyword(s) to use, conduct an initial search using the keyword(s) you have. In reviewing your search results look for "controlled" keywords, often called descriptors or subject headings, which commonly appear as part of each citation description. Then repeat your search with the addition of these "controlled" keywords.


Use a "building block" approach to searching if the database you are searching allows for it. Enter each of your concepts individually by ORing together the list of synonymous keywords you have created, e.g., socialization or social development or social skill*. After each of your concepts has been entered use the database "Search History" feature, if available, to AND together each of the concepts. Employing this approach allows you to: