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Undergraduate's Guide to Creating & Communicating Research


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Erin Owens
NGL 223D
ORCID: 0000-0001-9520-9314

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What Do I Search For?

BEFORE you sit down at the computer to start searching for sources, take a moment to think about WHAT you will search for.

Write down key words, phrases, names, and dates that might relate to your topic.

  • Think about synonyms or words with related meanings. For example, teenager, adolescent, youth, young adult
  • If relevant to your field, think about historical language as well as modern, because the words we use change over time.
  • Put phrases (multiple words that need to be together in a certain order) inside "quotation marks."

Male student frowning in concentration and writing in a notebook HOW do you come up with the words to write down?

  • You might use class textbooks and readings to help you get started.
  • Read encyclopedia entries about a related person, place, event, or concept to get ideas for more words. Instead of using Wikipedia for this, search Reference Universe from the Library.
  • If relevant, search the Oxford Historical Thesaurus to discover historical synonyms for modern words.
  • As you find sources, see what language they use, and add new terms to your list to help you refine additional searches.
  • Do a Google search to try and locate synonyms for the terms you know.

Make notes about how these words and phrases relate to each other, using AND, OR, and NOT to connect ideas (see diagrams below).

  • Use OR to connect synonyms or words that could be interchanged: a source should have at least one of these ideas. Example: cats OR felines. This finds MORE sources than either word alone would find ("or gets you more!").
  • Use AND to connect separate ideas when a source should discuss all of these ideas. Example: "African Americans" AND "Civil War". This finds FEWER sources than either word alone would find.  
  • Use NOT to exclude irrelevant information that might be found by the same keywords. Example: cowboys NOT football. This finds FEWER sources than the first word alone would find.

Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for cats OR felines           Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for African Americans AND Civil War

Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for cowboys NOT football


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