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Information Literacy Instruction

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Searching is strategic

What does that mean? It means you don't have time as a student to read through thousands of articles just to find out the majority of them are not relevant to your paper topic. So. to avoid that you have to:

1. Search in the right place.

2. Search the right way.

Search in the right place: You've probably heard professors or librarians tell you before that using the library resources is best. But you know from personal experience that you find so much more information much more easily by using Google. That's true. Google is easy and it gives you tons of information. The problem is: will your professor accept that information as scholarly? And which of those 3 million articles is most relevant for your research paper? Google searches are based on business algorithms (i.e. the top results most often are trying to sell you something). Google Scholar ( is better. It isn't trying to sell you anything directly. It gives you scholarly papers. The problem is, often they are in journals that want you to pay to access the article. That's why librarians recommend the library databases: they give you scholarly articles that the university has already paid for you to access.

Search the right way: When you search library databases, it's not like searching Google. You can't just put in keywords once and get a million results. If you search using the word "teaching," for example, and you don't find what you want, you will need to search again using a synonym, such as "education." Or you might need to use specialized academic terminology like "pedagogy." Or you might need to combine terms in a particular way to get the results you want.

Where should you search?

The best places to search are the library catalog and the library databases.


The library catalog

In the library catalog, you can find physical books located in the library. You might need to find books for multiple reasons:

  • When you are starting your research, books can be a good reference to help you learn more general information about your topic and to help you narrow your topic.
  • Books contain bibliographies and reference lists that will help you identify other important works on a subject.
  • In some subjects, books will be important primary sources.

Search Centre Library's Catalog for Books, DVDs &  More

Library databases

Library databases will help you find scholarly articles. Articles will help you find:

  • highly specific information on a topic.
  • the newest information on a topic (because articles are published more quickly than books).

When starting your research, you might first search some general library databases, such as:

Identifying Keywords

The key to a successful search is identifying appropriate keywords to use. Begin with only 2-3 terms. Avoid long phrases. Some strategies for identifying search terms include:

1. Write down your topic and underline the key concepts. For example: What methods of user education best remediate against social engineering attacks?
2. Brainstorm terms related to your key concepts. You can use the mind map/concept map you created when brainstorming your topic for this purpose. For example:

methods of user education remediate against social engineering attacks
user training prevent hacking
face-to-face training mitigate phishing
computerized training   spear-phishing
human factors   password security

3. If one search term doesn't produce the results you want, try synonyms for that word.

4. Do a quick database search. View the search results page to identify relevant terms. Titles and article abstracts (summaries) include helpful terms.

5. If you find one good article, look at the subject or keywords suggested in the detailed description of that article. Also look for keywords used in its abstract. Below is an example of the detailed description of an article in an EBSCO database. The provided subject terms are highlighted, as are potentially useful keywords in the abstract.

Once you've identified your keywords and decided which databases you want to search in, it is time to search. To get the best results out of your search, it is important to understand how search engines work, so you can make them work for you! Here is what you need to know.

The difference between the way humans think and databases work

Humans think in sentences and phrases, so we ask questions like, "What are the ethics of cloning?" Search engines think in keywords combined using Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT). Search engines reduce our questions to what they think are the keywords and automatically search for some combination of them. So, if we entered our question about cloning into a search engine, it would immediately disregard the words "what," "are," "the" and "of." The search engine calls those 'stop words' -- words that are everywhere and, therefore, are useless when searching. The search engine would then search for information that contain the terms "ethics" AND "cloning." AND is the default Boolean operator for most search engines. When a search engine combines two or more keywords using the AND operator, both (or all) those keywords have to be present in the article in order for the search engine to return a hit.

How can I make search engine work for me?

To get the most out of search engines, you must take full advantage of Boolean Operators. AND is not the only Boolean Operation. You can also use OR and NOT. Let's look at some examples.

Suppose your research question is, "How does user education impact the success of social engineering attacks?"

You might start by entering the following into your search engine: user education and social engineering attacks

That search will return all the results containing all the words: user, engineering, social and attacks -- all four words must be in the article somewhere in order for the article to be considered a "hit."

If you don't get enough results, try expanding your search using OR and synonyms for one or more of your search terms. If you use a combination of AND and OR operators in a search, enclose the words to be "ORed" together in parentheses. For example, try entering: user education and (social engineering or phishing)

Now you will get all the results containing the words user, education, social engineering and phishing. You will get more results by adding a synonym for social engineering.

Suppose you are getting too many results, and many of them are related to two-factor authentication, but you are not interested in two-factor authentication. You are interested in user training. Try limiting your search using the NOT operator by entering: user education and social engineering not two-factor authentication.

This will remove articles mentioning two factor authentication from your search results.

Take advantage of quotation marks

Let's look at a very important aspect of the search phrase user education and social engineering . The order of the words and the connection between them makes a difference. We want to search for the exact phrase: user education, and the exact phrase: social engineering. To make a search engine search for an exact phrase, put it in quotes: "user education" will return articles with this exact phrase.

Take advantage of wildcards

Wildcards broaden your search to include various word endings and spellings. To use a wild card, enter the root of a word and put the wildcard symbol at the end or in another appropriate place. The database will return results that include any ending of that root word. For example:

child* = child, child's, children, children's, childhood
genetic* = genetic, genetics, genetically
wom*n=woman, women

Wildcard symbols may vary by database, but common symbols include: *, !, ?, or #

What is citation mining?

‘Citation mining’ utilizes known information about a specific article to identify other articles that are relevant.

How do you do it?

First, find a really good article for your topic.

Once you find one great article, you can find more relevant ones by ‘mining’ it using the following suggestions:

1. Search for other publications by the same author.

Scholars typically focus on one area of study and publish numerous articles on that topic over a given period of time. So, it is likely you will find other useful articles by that same author. To find them, many databases will have the author name linked from the article to other articles by the same author found in that database.  You may, of course, do an author search using the name as well. It is particularly valuable to do an author search in other relevant databases. Each database has its own unique suite of journals (and some do books/book chapters), so you may find unique articles by the same author in one  database that are not in another..

2. Review the References list in the article to see if there are any other relevant articles in it.

3. Look for articles that cite the article or that are related to the articles.

To do this, search for your article's title in Google Scholar. Then click on the "Cited by" or "Related articles" links (see the image below).

The "Cited by" link will give you  numerous articles that thought your article was valuable enough to cite. Chances are, many of those will be useful for your research also. The "Related articles" link will give you articles the Google algorithm identifies as similar to yours. Some of these articles might be valuable.

What is a search log?

A search log may be a spreadsheet or grid. It may be a word document. The format is not important; the content of the log is important. A search log is a place where you keep a record of:

  • Where your searched (what database)
  • What keywords you used
  • Which, if any, filters you used
  • What results you obtained
  • Any notes on the usefulness of the search/ideas for improving it

Why use a search log?

It is almost never possible to complete a research task in one session. You may be interrupted by meetings, the need to go to class, or other responsibilities. If you keep a log of what you have already tried and notes of what you've found, this can help you pick up where you left off and remember useful strategies or other directions that you want to try.

A sample search log

Log: a source that supports your argument

Database searched

Keywords/filters used

Link to useful article (if one is found using the keyword / database combo)

Brief description of how the article supports your thesis




Log: a source that extends your argument

Database searched

Keywords/filters used

Link to useful article (if one is found using the keyword / database combo)

Brief description of how the article extends/expands upon your argument/thesis







Log: a source that refutes your argument

Database searched

Keywords/filters used

Link to useful article (if one is found using the keyword / database combo)

Brief description of how the article provides an opposing viewpoint







EBSCO databases


Web of Science