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ENG 111 & EDE (WO)

Create a Search Strategy

Identify 2-3 major concepts in your research question.

What concepts are most important?  Ignore vague words like "effect" or "United States".  Those could apply to millions of possible topics.  Instead, focus on what makes your question unique.  In this example, "electric cars" and "climate change" are the two major concepts:

How will wide-scale adoption of electric cars in the United States impact climate change?

If you only have one major topic, your research question may be too broad.  If you have four or more major concepts, your research question may be too narrow. 

Come up with synonyms and related ideas for each major concept. 

You could search using the major concepts you identified, but you might not get good results.  Invest time to come up with other related keywords to search.  They may give better results than your initial major concepts.  In the example below, we might find better results searching for "emissions" than "climate change" because "emissions" is more specific.  Avoid vague words or those that could have different meanings.

  1. electric cars -- electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicle sales, electric vehicle adoption
  2. climate change -- emissions, pollution, air quality, greenhouse gasses

Combine one keyword from each group using AND:

Different combinations of keywords will give different results.  Try several different search strategies to see which give the best results. 

  • electric vehicles AND climate change
  • electric cars AND emissions
  • electric vehicle adoption AND greenhouse gasses

Adjusting Your Search Strategy

Now you have several search strategies to try when searching for books and articles.  You will not know which search strategies are best until you start searching.  Pay attention to the number and relevance of results you get.  A good search strategy should give you a small number of highly-relevant results.

Number of Results

Aim for around 50-500 results.  If you get fewer, the search may be too specific.  If you get more, the search may be too broad.

These are real examples from Academic Search Complete, limited to full-text articles from the past ten years.  Imagine sorting through the results for each search.  Which search strategy would you try first?

Search Results
climate change 71,419
electric vehicles 5,757
electric vehicles AND climate change 173
electric vehicles AND climate change AND affordability 2

[Electric vehicles AND climate change] is the best search to try first.  [electric vehicles AND climate change AND affordability] gave only 2 results, so the search is too complicated.  A search for [electric vehicles AND affordab*] gives 161 results.


Once your number of results is reasonable, you can scan the first page of results to see if they are relevant to your project.  Do you see results that will be useful?  If not, try adjusting the keywords in your search strategy.  If you find relevant results, pay attention to the words they use.  Those might be good keywords to try in new searches.  For example, if you see the word "range anxiety" in several articles about electric vehicles, that might be a good word to try in a search.

Developing a Search Strategy Helpsheet

With this helpsheet, you can develop an effective search strategy that will save you time and retrieve better results!