Skip to Main Content

HIST 101 - Harrison High School

Step 1: Research Question

Every research assignment starts with a topic - and those topics may be intentionally broad so that you have the opportunity to focus on something that interests you. You're going to want to narrow down or focus your topic before you start searching for sources, though. Otherwise you'll end up more sources than you could read in a lifetime discussing more aspects of a topic than you could possibly fit into one paper. For example, if you just search the words organ donation in the ProQuest Central database, here's what you'll get: 

screenshot of search for words "organ donation" with arrow pointing to 351,088 results 

...No thanks.


So how do you avoid an enormous results list like this? Take a few minutes to think about the many facets of your topic, and turn those into questions. With the example of organ donation, I could maybe ask: 

"Should organ donors receive payment?"

Step 2: Select Keywords

Databases don't work the same way as Google in terms of searching. If you typed "Should organ donors receive payment?" into Google, you would likely get some results. They probably wouldn't be scholarly results (i.e. sources written by experts and/or peer-reviewed by other experts) though, which is why you'll want to search in a database. However, if you type a full sentence into a database, you'll likely get the sad news that...

screenshot of academic search premier search for should organ donors receive payment showing no results found

This is because databases search for individual keywords in resources or in the information about a resource (title, abstract or summary, . Think of keywords as the words that represent the most essential concepts in your research question. Take, for example, the research question: 

Should organ donors receive payment?

From this sentence, I would select the following keywords:

  • organ
  • donor
  • payment

You can ignore auxiliary or modal verbs (e.g. should, would, can, is, do, etc.) because those words are going to appear in virtually every resource; and they don't actually add any intellectual content to your search. In this case, I can also ignore the verb "receive" for the same reasons.

Step 3: Brainstorm Synonyms and Related Terms

If we plug our keywords into the search box of a database, the database will look for those exact words in the description or full text of a resource. But, the database isn't necessarily going to know that synonyms or related terms to the ones we search might also be relevant. For example, take a look at the image below. 

photograph of aluminum cans
Image licensed under CC0 Public Domain by Jean Beaufort

What do you call the fizzy, sugary beverage inside these cans?
soda pop
soft drink
Created with PollMaker

You and the author of a text might refer to different concepts by different words, so it's always a good idea to add some of those words to your search. Here are some example synonyms and related terms for the organ donation keywords:

  • organ, tissue
  • donor, donation, transplant
  • payment, compensation, paid, money


Step 4: Boolean Operators

Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT) are not words in the traditional sense. They are, instead, how database search engines create relationships between your keywords. 

  • AND connects key concepts
    Example: organ AND donation
    The AND between these words tells the database that it is necessary for both of these terms to appear in an information source for it to be relevant to me.
  • OR connects synonyms and related terms within a concept
    Example: payment OR compensation OR paid
    The OR between these words tells the database that any or all of these words my appear in a source, so long as at least one of them appears.
  • NOT excludes sources mentioning a specific word from your results list
    Example: organ NOT kidney 
    This search would eliminate any sources mentioning the word "kidney" from my results.

Here's how this would look in a database:

screenshot of academic search premier advanced search. first box contains word "organ." boolean selected is and. second box contains words "payment or compensation or paid". boolean selected is and. third box contains words donation or transplant.