Developing a Search Strategy

Break the Research Question Down into Concept Blocks


getting started search strategy searching evaluate, cite, write

Once you have settled on a research question you will need to break the question down into the main concepts or ideas that it contains. You will later use these concepts when you search library resources.

Our sample research question can be broken down into 3 main concepts:

How can a healthy body image be promoted to adolescent girls?
Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
body image promotion adolescent girls

Search Vocabulary: synonyms and related terms

Because different words can be used to describe these concepts, we need to think of what synonyms and/or related terms might be useful in searching for materials. This is important because a computer database will search and retrieve articles containing the words you've typed in, but it will not understand the context of your topic, the meaning of the words, or how they fit together.

Sources for locating search terms:

  • Brainstorm. Try to think of words that would appear in the title of a book or journal article about the topic.
  • Use search terms recorded during the background reading phase.
  • If you already have a relevant article or book in hand examine it for possibly useful search terms.
  • Consult a thesaurus to expand your search vocabulary. Roget's Thesaurus is available online.
  • You may also wish to consult a subject-specific thesaurus such as the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms, which is available in the reference collections of most academic libraries.
  • Some databases provide access to an online thesaurus of subjects used in the database.
  • Library of Congress Subject Headings, available in most libraries, is another rich source for terminology.

Concept Map

It helps to record your concepts and their associated search vocabulary in a table or "concept map".

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
body image promotion adolescent
self-perception education teenager
dieting programs youth
nutrition prevention young adult
eating disorders    

Note the following in our concept map:

This concept map does not include gender. Gender could be incorporated into concept 3 (e.g. adolescent girls, teenage girls) or added as a fourth concept (girls, female, women). If our searches retrieve too many items dealing with the body image of adolescent boys we will want to include gender in the search because we are seeking information about adolescent girls.

Terms describing eating disorders are included with the idea that an article dealing with the topic of healthy body image may discuss its opposite.

We could add a concept for race and/or sexuality to consider social factors. For example, if we wanted information on the promotion of healthy body image to First Nations adolescent girls, to limit the search to that group we would need an additional concept for First Nations.

As you can see, many variations are possible and determining an appropriate search vocabulary is much more an art than a science.

Research tip: It is generally best to avoid searching for too many concepts at once because this can lead to complicated search statements that fail to retrieve relevant items. It can also narrow your search too much from the beginning and cause you to miss out on articles that might be useful.

Think about your research question--what are the main concepts? What synonyms and related terms can be used as search terms?
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