This post is part of a series where I expose all the rules and tools you should know when searching for documents in a bibliographic database. The first instalment was about beginning with a very wide search and narrowing it down little by little. The second one studied how to find and use good keywords.
Today, I want to talk about fields. Not the kind you can run through. But the kind that help you refine your search.
Rule #3: Where possible, use fields
Most bibliographic databases don’t allow you to do a simple “Google” search by entering a string of word in one simple text box.
Instead, they demand that you use a more complex interface comprising different text boxes with, in front of them (or just behind), a drop-down menu with several options: “Author”, “Title”, “Subject”, “Keyword”, “Abstract”, etc. Those are the fields I’m talking about.
You might have seen them before if you clicked on the “advanced search” button of your library’s catalogue. But in bibliographic databases, they’re often the only option.
A lot of people don’t care about the fields, just type in their keywords in one of the boxes and click “search”. Don’t be that kind of person! Here is why:
- Your search won’t be as efficient as it could be;
- If asked, you won’t be able to justify your search strategy in much details;
- In some cases, you won’t be able to reproduce your search exactly.
That said, if you’re only looking to get something to read right now and don’t care about being thorough, then this is a totally valid way to go. But I’m guessing that if you’re doing a literature review, you might be interested in doing this the right way.
So what is the “right way”?
- Only type in one word or expression per box;
- Always choose an appropriate field for each box you’ve filled in;
- If you use several terms / fields, link them using Boolean operators;
- Then -and only then! – click “search”.
Easy enough, isn’t it?
Once you’re done, you end up with a pretty search equation that you can note down and save if you need to explain how you found those results.
Here are a few examples of search equations:
SUBJECT Time Travelling and AUTHOR Peter Capaldi
(Meaning: I was looking for papers about time travelling written by Peter Capaldi.)
KEYWORD Tardis or KEYWORD “Time and Relative Dimension in Space”
(Meaning: I was looking for papers about the Doctor’s spaceship, may it be spelled “Tardis” or with its full acronym developed.)
Nota Bene: The fields proposed may vary from one database to the other. Always check the drop-down menu and, if in doubt, have a look at the help page for this particular resource. Or ask you university librarian.
Now it’s your turn! Go back to that database you were searching and check out what kind of fields you could use. Do you get different results? Are they more relevant? Do you still have too many? Remember: searching is all about experimenting! So try different combinations, try other fields, try other keywords and find new interesting documents!
And if you’re stuck or lost, send me a message or tell me about it in the comments. I answer to everybody, no exceptions.
The image above has been created using a picture by Stuck in Customs (cc by-nc-sa 2.0).