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Route 1: Planning a Search

Page history last edited by Elaine Shallcross 10 years, 11 months ago



learning outcome: ability to recognise an information need

learning outcome: ability to construct strategies for locating information


Route 1 is the planning stage and it is one of the most important processes in your search for information.

Start at the top and work down the four InfoPaths that make up Route 1...


Available from this page is a collection of resources designed to help you with this stage. Feel free to look at them, download them and print them off - whatever suits you best.


Route 1A: Managing your time


This should only take a few minutes but careful planning will save that last minute stressful phase when you don't sleep for a couple of days and live on gallons of black coffee and Red Bull!
You probably do all of these things subconsciously anyway but here are a few points worth thinking about:


  1. Plan your time carefully - with so much other work to be done to deadlines too, this is quite a feat. But you have to submit a piece of work by a specific date.
    You must avoid being penalised for a late submission.
  2. Know when your deadline for submission is. Allow plenty of time to check your work for spelling, punctuation and grammar and, most importantly, to write the bibliography.
    We have some tips later on using software that takes the pain out of referencing :-)
  3. NEVER type the title of your assignment into the library catalogue or electronic information database. You won't find much that way. We think that planning a search is the most important step of all.
    A good search reaps good results (hopefully a good outcome for your assignment too!).
  4. Try not to Google everything. As tempting as it is to ignore all the £2.4 million worth of books and journals that the library pays for every year and Google everything - try not to. Google doesn't focus on searching across quality academic literature, it retrieves everything (and that can be a very great deal!).
    Most information Google finds will be irrelevant and a fair proportion will be pure rubbish.
    Nothing that Google finds is evaluated - you have to do that = more time wasted.
  5. It can take longer to find information than you might first imagine - particularly if you are new to the University. Why don't you sign up for library tours or information skills workshops that will help you to use important library resources?
    Book a place on a workshop
    here (they're free!).


Route 1B: Defining your information need


You should begin by thinking about the information you need:

  1. What is your assignment? An essay, report or presentation?
  2. Do you need current or historical information, or both?
  3. Do you need debates or opinions on your topic; statistical data or facts and figures, or both?
  4. Do you have to present your own findings from experiments or questionnaires?
  5. Do you have a course reading list?
  6. Are there factors that limit what you can do? e.g. submission date, word count, resources restricted in any way?
  7. Do you understand exactly what you have been asked to do? Ask your lecturer if you are unsure.

Only when you are certain of what is required of you can you start searching for appropriate information.


Summary notes available as a PDF file.


Route 1C: Analysing your topic


FIRST BIG TIP :-) never use the title of your assignment as a search for information - you are likely to end up with few or no results! Lecturers want to test your depth of reading, understanding and interpretation - they won't make life that easy for you, particularly in the final years of your degree and at postgraduate level.


Here are a few small tips :-) to get you started:

  1. Think about your topic and note the most important ideas your lecturer is asking you to consider (there will be at least two).
  2. Decide on essential words that describe each idea - we call them keywords - that must be found in the information you retrieve from your searches.
  3. Use a thesaurus (a vocabulary of terms) to define relevant keywords not included in the title of your assignment.
  4. Use nouns or adjectives as keywords.
  5. Ignore words in your topic such as discuss or analyse. They are important in giving you direction on how to write your assignment.
  6. Note other important factors associated with your topic such as time and place. 
  7. Follow the example plan below:


STEP 1: Look at your topic carefully and decide what ideas you have to search for (we call them concepts).


EXAMPLE TOPIC: Discuss the ethical issues relating to genetically modified food in the human diet.




genetically modified food




Route 1D: Selecting your keywords


STEP 2: Note the key words and phrases that describe each of the different ideas that make up your topic.

Include differences in spelling (e.g. UK v. US English), synonyms and acronyms, prominent researchers and institutions.


EXAMPLE TOPIC: Discuss the ethical issues relating to genetically modified food in the human diet.


IDEAS TO LOOK FOR: ethics; genetically modified food; diet; human



ethics = ethic*

genetically modified food = "genetically modified food*" or  "GM food*"  

diet =  diet* or nutri*

human = human* or people or child* or "pregnant mother*" or elderly


SECOND BIG TIP :-) use the correct search rules for the database you are searching. They affect the number of results you retrieve quite dramatically. For instance:

    • Use a truncation symbol (e.g. an asterisk *) at the end of a keyword to search for all the possible endings for that keyword; it could increase the number of results you have by twofold or more,
      e.g. diet* finds diet, diets, dietary
    • Use quotes around two or more words to look for a phrase, i.e. words that must occur together in a very specific order,
      e.g. "genetically modified foods"

More about this later ...


So far the plan for my first search for information on the topic of 'the ethical issues relating to genetically modified food in the human diet' might look like this:

Different Ideas - link with and
   Keywords and Phrases that have the same or similar meanings - link with or
Idea I: ethics
and Idea 2: genetically modified foods
"genetically modified food*" or "GM food*"
and Idea 3: diet
diet* or nutri*    
and Idea 4: human human* or child* or "pregnant mother*"


Summary notes available as a PDF file.


Route 1E: Combining your keywords

The next step in planning a search involves re-assembling your keywords in a very specific way. Instead of using the title of your assignment as your search strategy you must combine your keywords and phrases together using Boolean Operators - and, or (and sometimes) not.

THIRD BIG TIP :-)  Use not with caution; eliminating one keyword will also eliminate records that contain other keywords!


This how Boolean Operators work:

Using a planning table (available here) along with your assignment and write down:

  1. The different concepts (ideas) contained in the title (use a new row for each different concept)
  2. All the keywords and phrases that describe each concept (note all the keywords/phrases that have the same meaning together in the same row)
  3. Combine all the keywords/phrases that have the same meaning with or
  4. Combine each different concept with and 
  5. See example in Scetion 1D and on the reverse of the planning table; by now your search should look a little like this: 



My first search for information on 'the ethical issues relating to genetically modified food in the human diet' might look like this:



"genetically modified food*" or "GM food*"


diet* or nutri*




You don't have to use all your keywords in your initial searches - you might need to drop some and use others, or introduce more, depending on the number of results you retrieve.



FOURTH BIG TIP :-) Your search may be more successful if you begin with a general search on a broad topic area and focus the search later than to be very specific from the start. This is particularly important when you use the library catalogue because it really only searches at title level. You cannot search across the contents of books and journals using the library catalogue. You need to use other tools for that. So... for example, in our search for information on genetically modified foods I might begin my search on the catalogue for everything on human nutrition.



TIP 1: To begin your search decide what exactly you need to find. It looks like we're stating the obvious, but a few minutes spent thinking around your topic at this stage will reap benefits in saving heaps of time and stress later on.

TIP 2: Don't type the title of your assignment into the library catalogue (or any other search tool) - you'll probably find little or nothing. Let's face it - what lecturer is going to make things that easy?  REMEMBER a rubbish search in will get rubbish results back!


TIP 3: A good search discards a lot of stuff that just isn't relevant and saves you time by not having to sift through it all. You'll never get a perfect search first time but this stage will help to avoid being swamped by thousands of irrelevant results or find nothing at all :-)



To help you with Route 1:

  1. Summary of Route 1B: defining your information needs (PDF)
  2. How to plan a search:
    1. Watch a PowerPoint presentation
    2. Watch a Vodcast (looks like a video with annotations and voice-over)
  3. 'Design Your Search Strategy' table - use this to note important ideas and keywords that describe your topic.
  4. Print off copies of your search strategy and search rules for databases so that you can use them in the next section (Route 2 - How to search for information).



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