Search Methods

There are many ways to approach information retrieval and therefore there are many ways to do the search in practise. Search methods include quick and simple search, narrow to broad search, tracking search i.e. pearl growing, browsing search, and systematic search.

Firstly,it is advisable to probe the topic and test the search:

  • Try individual words
  • Try simple search queries: 1 or 2 AND operations
  • Add more AND operations when needed
  • Gather more viable search terms
  • Try comprehensive search queries with alternative words
  • Remember the significance of search fields, truncation, and phrases

Sorting the search results might help to evaluate the success of your search. Databases usually offer a variety of options for sorting results. The best matches can be made to appear on top of the list if you sort by relevance. It is often recommended to also view the most recent results.

“Quick and simple” search is a good first step

In “quick and simple” search, the search is executed with an individual word or phrase. This gives an idea about whether the subject area is common or rare in the particular database (or even overall). There could be useful results among the matches.

The search is focused gradually in the “from broad to narrow” method

In the “from broad to narrower” -search method, information retrieval begins by choosing a broad subject area for which you can find a lot of search results. The subject area is then outlined with concepts that specify and restrain it, e.g., language, year of publication etc. using the AND operator. Outlining is done until there are enough relevant search results.

The search is broadened by interpreting the results in the “from narrow to broad” method

In the “from narrow to broad” -search method, the broader concepts of exact search terms are explored and used as a part of the search query.

First, the search is done with an exact search term. In case a specific search term is only yielding few if any results, you should consider the broader subject fields that the problem is related to, or otherwise change the search term. The search is done again using a wider or modified search term. 

When searching with a broader term, some irrelevant results will most likely also appear among the results, in which case you should be sure to evaluate their significance to your topic.

Tracking search aka pearl-growing advances by following the clues in the results

In tracking search aka pearl-growing, the search starts with a sparse amount of information. Publications are first searched using some relevant search term. Search results are then explored for clues to new relevant sources and developing or complementing the initial search query.

The results of pearl growing yield clues for new search terms, sources, authors, as well as for finding organisations or publication series in the field, or simply for focusing your own ideas. These findings can be used to modify the search query and improve searches, and thus find the most important publications.

Browsing search may provide new ideas for the information retrieval

Browsing search is, as its name suggests, searching information by browsing. Although browsing search may sound ineffective and even random compared with searching with search terms and concepts, it is a good idea to keep in mind that interesting articles may also be found in this manner.

A good example of browsing search is browsing through the articles of a particular journal in a database.

Systematic search is recommended for extensive research

Systematic information retrieval is necessary for comprehensive, systematic literature review. Systematic information retrieval is used to survey the relevant and accessible publications on the topic for scientific work (e.g., thesis).