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Searching for information

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Being able to search for useful information that is relevant to your studies is one of the key skills that will improve your marks, as well as the overall quality of your study experience.

There are a number of different components to search skills:

  • Knowing where to find information - the key texts in your area, the journals, primary sources, etc., and how to get hold of them.
  • Knowing what information you need - understanding your topic and knowing the key concepts you should research.
  • Knowing how to search the sources - using keywords etc.
  • Recording your searches, so that you have an ‘audit trail’.

Where to find information

In 'Making the most of your library' we explored the main types of resources that you might need as a student - books, journals, primary sources, the Internet, databases etc. - and how to search for them. Let’s just look briefly at how you would use these various forms of information in an essay or research project.

Maylor and Blackman (2005) distinguish between the different types of knowledge that you need:

  • Academic knowledge, which is knowledge about concepts, theories, models and hypotheses.
  • Real world, empirical knowledge - that is knowledge about the setting of your research and sample - people, organizations, industries etc.
  • Knowledge about how to ‘do’ research - research methods etc.

Roughly speaking, these different types of information can be found in the following sources:

Information sources
Academic knowledge
  • Academic books - textbooks, monographs (books about a particular subject), edited collections.
  • Academic journals - all articles will have been peer reviewed.
Empirical knowledge
  • The media - newspapers, TV etc. but also the specialist trade magazines and professional journals, for example The Economist, Management Today, Harvard Business Review. The articles will not have been peer reviewed, but are more likely to have practical real world relevance.
  • Grey literature (published for a promotional rather than a commercial purpose) - brochures, annual reports etc.
  • Company web pages
  • Databases - e.g. AMADEUS, FAME, Mintel
Research methods
  • Academic books - textbooks on research methods
  • Monographs - books on particular research methods
  • Academic journals - reports of the methods used in particular research

What to look for - organizing your search

Bearing the above points in mind, it’s a useful exercise to take apart your topic and decide what types of knowledge you need. For example:

If your research topic/essay is on experiences of customer satisfaction in the entertainment industry, you might want to look for:

  • Academic literature on customer satisfaction.
  • Background information on the entertainment industry, from trade magazines and other general industry sources.

If your research topic/essay was on the supply chain in publishing, you might want to look at:

  • Academic literature on the supply chain, including, but not limited to, the publishing industry.
  • Background information on the publishing industry, from trade magazines and other general industry sources.

However it is likely that your topic/essay would also have a particular ‘slant’ to it, that invited you to discuss, evaluate, examine a hypothesis etc. For example, you could be asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the supply chain in the current publishing industry, discuss ways of measuring customer satisfaction etc. It’s important to be aware of these elements because they will add a dimension to your need for information - you will also need to find information on ways of evaluating effectiveness of supply chains, or measuring customer satisfaction and retention, etc.

Finally, for a research project, you would also need to look for information on the different research methods.

Having broken down your topic into component parts, the next stage is to decide how these parts can be expressed in words and concepts. The following examples show parts separated, and the key concepts highlighted in bold:

Ways of measuring customer satisfaction | in the entertainments industry.

Evaluate the effectiveness of the supply chain | in the publishing industry.

How to search

Defining the parameters of your search like this will help you when it comes to doing keyword searches, which is one of the most powerful ways of retrieving information. First, however, we will explore a couple of other ways of searching.

Author/title searches

Searching by author and/or title obviously assumes that you are searching for a particular author or book or article title, probably in either a database or library catalogue. Obviously particular search engines will vary, but the following are some general guidelines:

  • When searching by author, put the author’s last name first i.e. Kotler, Philip, not Philip Kotler
  • When searching by title, it helps if you enter the title as correctly as possible.
  • If searching for an organization, give the full name of the organization as it commonly appears, e.g. World Bank.

Snowball search

This is a good way of searching if your topic has a key work or author. Look in that work for the key people on whom that author draws, making a preliminary bibliography from that. Do the same for each of the subsequent authors.

If your key work is a few years old, then you can follow the stream of research up to the near present and trace citations of that author using a specialized citations database, such as the Social Science Citation Index. That way, you can see the way in which the work/author has influenced subsequent work.

Keyword searches

Keywords are a way of searching through subject/topic. Most library catalogues and databases will include an option to search by keyword and an alternative to author and title.

Searching by keyword can be very effective, providing you select terms that accurately describe what you are looking for, and ones that are likely to have been picked by other writers on the subject. In fact, part of the reason why keywords are effective is because writers often pick out their own keywords to describe an article, which means that they come up more easily in a search.

The title of your assignment/project, and your conceptual analysis of it as described above, will give you your initial list of keywords. In order to make your search as wide as possible, you need to ensure that you include:

Variations of the same word

  • American vs. English spelling
  • Singular and plural
  • Abbreviations/acronyms, e.g. TQM/Total Quality Management

Different words with a similar meaning

  • Corporate sponsorship, corporate giving
  • Marketing evaluation, marketing measurement
  • Entertainments industry, leisure industry

Some search tools understand natural language, and automatically try and find as many of your words as possible, but not necessarily in useful relationship to one another.

One way of making your search more specific is by using operators from Boolean logic. This way, you can use terms such as AND, OR, NOT, as well as punctuation such as “ “, ( ), to link words together and make ‘search strings’.

AND, +

Allows you to combine words in a search, so that the terms are linked in the results. Useful for linking different ideas and concepts.


Allows you to search for words in close proximity, and ensures that the only records that are returned are ones where words appear close to one another, hence increasing the chance of a meaningful link.

" "

Allows you to search for words as a phrase, for example “qualitative research” ensures that only that particular phrase is returned.


Allows you to search for alternatives: the search will return records with all terms in the search. Can be used for different spellings, singular/plural, synonyms, full terms and their abbreviations, words/phrases with similar but not exactly the same meaning.

e.g. organisation OR organization; Total Quality Management OR TQM; customer service OR customer retention. It’s a good way of broadening your search to include all the terms that might be relevant, but it can mean that you get a lot of results!


Allows you to exclude words from a search, which can be useful if you want to exclude words which might bring up irrelevant results by including unnecessary information or skewing the meaning.

For example, if you wanted to search for the word ‘record’ in an administrative sense, you might want to enter ‘record NOT music’.

You can use Boolean search strings to carry out a very specific search: for example, you might want to find out about job appraisal in the catering industry. Both ‘job appraisal’ and ‘catering industry’ are terms that can be variously expressed, so you might want to phrase your search thus:

Job OR performance appraisal AND catering OR hospitality OR leisure industry

You could, however, put brackets round concepts or phrases you want to link to ensure that these terms are searched first, thereby giving a structure to your search:

(Job OR performance appraisal) AND (catering OR hospitality OR leisure industry)

There are also ways of dealing with different word formations and spellings:


Ways of dealing with different spellings: for example, analyse/analyze can be dealt with by placing a ? or * in the place of the ‘s’/’z’.


This allows you to search all the variants of a word by putting a * after its stem. It can be useful in dealing with verbal forms of nouns e.g. analys* for analyse/analysis, but take care that you don’t select a root which also applies to many other words. For example, archiv* for archival/archive research would also yield results that relate to archives generally.

Two final points about using keyword searches in individual databases, library catalogues and search engines:

  • Individual databases etc. will have different rules about syntax, operators etc. and you are advised to look at their help pages for guidance.
  • Some databases and search engines structure their search mechanisms around Boolean searching, as for example the ‘Advanced search’ option of Google, or that in Emerald’s Fulltext, which allows you to search a phrase (otherwise “ “) or use and/or etc.

How to record your searches

Recording your searches is a different activity from making notes on what you read, which you will want to do as well. Recording your searches enables you to have an audit trail of what you have done, and see what worked and what didn’t. You should make a note of:

  • The main points of your search - its concepts and remit.
  • The search tools you used.
  • The search words, including synonyms, alternative words etc.
  • Search strings.
  • Results, including which were the most relevant.



The following online tutorials provide useful information about search skills:

University of London Research Library Services:
Library research skills tutorial - http://www.ulrls.lon.ac.uk/tutorial/

Leeds University Library Online tutorials - http://www.leeds.ac.uk/library/training/tutorials.htm

(Much of this is generalizable although many of the examples relate to Leeds University Library, and there are different tutorials for new students and students doing research projects.)


Maylor, H., and Blackman, K. (2005), Researching Business and Management, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK

This has a useful section (Chapter 4) on ‘How do I find information? Using the library and internet as knowledge resources’