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Step 3. Create a Search Strategy

After you've selected your topic, come up with a research question, and done some background reading, you'll need to create a search strategy to find books and articles in databases.  Database searching is different from searching Google - databases cannot interpret questions and phrases.  It's necessary to build a search strategy to get the best results quickly.

1. Identify main concepts

Take your research question and pull out the main concepts.  For the research question, Should college athletes be paid?, the main concepts are college athletes and paid.

2. List search terms

Next, list the terms you'll use for searching.  For each main concept, come up with synonyms and related terms, both narrower and broader.  (Hint: your mind map might come in handy here.)  Here are some search terms for the key concepts above.















3. Combine search terms with AND and OR

AND finds items containing both (or more) terms, narrowing your search. Use AND to combine your main concepts.

college AND athletes AND pay

OR finds items containing either term, broadening your search. Use OR to combine synonyms or related terms.

college OR university

If using both AND and OR, use ( ) to set apart concepts, like a math equation.

(college OR university) AND athletes AND (pay OR compensation)


When using your search strategy to look for books and articles in databases,

  • Experiment and try several searches with different search terms.
  • Scan your results for "subjects" to find other search terms to use.
  • Use fewer search terms if you're not getting enough results.

AND and OR