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The Industry Researcher’s Guide to Effective Literature Searching

A guide designed for industry researchers

Process for creating a search strategy

Once you have determined where to search, you need to translate your research question into a useable search.  

Doing so will take place in stages. 

  1. Depending on your background knowledge, you might need to explore a topic first with a loose search.
  2. Formulate your research question, and identify its search terms.
  3. Run a "rough draft" search based on those terms.
  4. Based on the results, refine your search strategy. 
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as many times as necessary. 
  6. Save any relevant results you find as you are revising your search.
  7. Save the final search.  

A good search strategy will include:

  • Key concepts and meaningful terms
  • Keywords or subject headings
  • Alternative keywords
  • Care in linking concepts correctly
  • Regular evaluation of search results, to ensure that your search is focused
  • A detailed record of your final strategy. 

You will find general guidance on the principles and techniques behind literature searching below.   For specific guidance on how to apply the techniques discussed in FSTA on EBSCOhost, Ovid or Web of Science platforms or in IFIS Collections go to the IFIS Collections and FSTA support tab.

Identifying your search concepts

Most databases do not "understand" a search written in natural language which is language that mirrors the way we talk.  Instead, a question needs to be broken down to specific search terms.  Finding your initial search terms is usually fairly easy.  Basically, you just need to identify the main components of your research question and discard connecting words.

What are the mechanical properties of environmentally friendly packaging films manufactured from starch?

 

However, at the same time you are locating your terms, you need to also consider:

  • How specific should your question be? 
    • Too broad a query can overwhelm you with results. 
    • A question framed too narrowly risks missing important information. 
  • Sometimes your question's focus will be okay, but you will find you get better results if you do not actually search all of the concepts in a single search.  
  • Sometimes it's appropriate to break your research question into separate parts to see what relevant research has been done on each component, so you might need to run multiple searches.

The search terms you begin with may not really be the best, or sole, terms to effectively capture your concept. 

Using a chart like the one below can help you brainstorm and collect words to include in your search. To populate it:

  • Identify the main concepts in your search
  • Use two parallel strategies to populate the other boxes:
    • Run initial searches with your terms, scanning abstract and thesaurus terms (aka subject terms, descriptors or keywords depending on which platform you are searching) of relevant results for words to add to your chart.
    •  Explore a database thesaurus hierarchy for suitable broader and narrower terms.

Note: You don’t need to fill all of the boxes in a search matrix.

Search matrix

You will find that you need to do some searches as you experiment in running it and this will help you refine your search strategy. For the search on this example question:

  • Some of the broader terms turned out to be too broad, introducing a host of irrelevant results about pork and chicken
  • Some of the narrower terms were unnecessary, as any result containing “beef extract” is captured by just using the term beef.

See the revised matrix (after running searches) tab!


This revised matrix shows both adjustments made to terms, and how the terms are connected with Boolean operators.  Different forms of the same concept (the columns) are connected with OR, and each of the different concepts are connected with AND.   

Search tools

 

 

Boolean operators tell a database or search engine how the terms you type are related to each other.  

 

 

 

Use OR to connect variations representing the same concept. In many search interfaces you will want to put your OR components inside parentheses like this: (safe OR “food safety” OR decontamination OR contamination OR disinfect*). These are now lumped together into a single food safety concept for your search.

Use AND to link different concepts. By typing (safe OR “food safety” OR decontamination OR contamination OR disinfect*) AND (beef OR “cattle carcasses”)—you are directing the database to display results containing both concepts.

NOT eliminates all results containing a specific word.  Use NOT with caution. The term excluded might be used in a way you have not anticipated, and you will not know because you will not see the missing results.


Learn more about using Boolean operators: Research Basics: Using Boolean Operators to Build a Search (ifis.org)


The search in the matrix above would look like this in a database:

("food safety" OR safety OR decontamination OR contamination OR disinfection) AND (thaw* OR defrost* OR "thawing medium") AND ("sensory quality attributes" OR "sensory perception" OR quality OR aroma OR appearance OR "eating quality" OR juiciness OR mouthfeel OR texture OR "mechanical properties" OR "sensory analysis" OR "rheological properties") AND (beef OR "cattle carcasses")

Thesaurus terms will help you capture variations in words and spellings that researchers might use to refer to the same concept, but you can and should also use other mechanisms utilised by databases to do the same. This is especially important for searches in databases where the thesaurus is not specialised for food science.

  • Phrase searching, putting two or more words inside quotation marks like “food safety” will ensure that those words appear in a single field (i.e. title or abstract or subject heading) together as the phrase. Phrase searching can eliminate false hits where the words used separately do not represent the needed concept.
  • Some databases allow you to use proximity searching to specify that words need to be near each other. For instance, if you type ripening N5 cheese you will get results with a maximum of five words between ripening and cheese.  You would get results containing cheese ripening as well as results containing ripening of semi-hard goat cheese.

Learn how to test if a phrase search or a proximity search is the better choice for your search: Proximity searching, phrase searching, and Boolean AND: 3 techniques to focus your literature search (ifis.org)


Note: Proximity symbols vary from database to database. Some use N plus a number, while others use NEAR, ADJ or W. Always check the database help section to be sure that you are using the right symbols for that database.

Truncating a word mean typing the start of a word, followed by a symbol, usually an asterisk (*).  This symbol tells the database to return the letters you have typed followed either by no letters (if appropriate) or letters.  It is an easy way to capture a concept that might be expressed with a variety of endings. 

Sometimes you need to adjust where you truncate to avoid irrelevant results.  See the difference between results for nutri* or nutrit*

 

nutri* nutrit*

nutria     

nutritious     

nutrition       

nutritional       

nutritionally  

nutricereals    

nutrikinetics

nutritionists  

nutrative  

nutrient 

nutrients

nutrigenetics

nutrigenomic

nutrigenomics

and more. 

nutrition 

nutritious           

nutritional     

nutritionally  

nutritionists  

nutrative  

 

Inserting wildcard symbols into words covers spelling variations.  In some databases, typing organi?ation would return results with organisation or organization, and flavo#r would bring back results with flavor or flavour.  


Note: While the truncation symbol is often *, it can also be $ or !.   Wildcard symbols also vary from database to database. $ or ? are sometimes used. Always check the database help section to be sure that you are using the right symbols for that database.


In building a search you can combine all the tools available to you.   “Brewer* yeast” , which uses both phrase searching and truncation, will bring back results for brewer yeastbrewer’s yeast and brewers yeast, three variations which are all used in the literature.

Best practice!

BEST PRACTICE RECOMMENDATION:  Ask a colleague or librarian to review your search strategy. This can be very helpful, especially if you are new to a topic.