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:
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?"
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...
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:
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.
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.
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:
Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT) are not words in the traditional sense. They are, instead, how database search engines create relationships between your keywords.
Here's how this would look in a database:
Research in the health professions often follows the format of a PICO question. Even if your topic isn't strictly biomedical or intervention (treatment) based, the PICO format may still offer some guidance for keyword generation.
Population of interest
Examples: students, diabetics, adolescents, nurses, athletes
Intervention (i.e. treatment)
Examples: mobile device reminders, chemotherapy, dry-needling, wellness workshop
This can be an alternative intervention/treatment option, or simply the lack of the stated intervention.
Outcome (What is the goal of this intervention?)
Examples: reduced rate of hospital readmission, blood glucose regulation, staff morale, patient education, increased longevity