Once your students have explored and decided upon a topic for a research paper, it’s time for them to begin investigating it! For many, this is enjoyable, as it represents the beginning of the process of discovery. Yet it also poses a challenge if they don’t know quite how to conduct a search that will enable them to retrieve information that’s related to their topic.

Given that very few libraries still offer physical card catalogs, they’ll likely begin the process by using a search engine, database, or, library catalog. If, for example, they have decided to research California history, tax reform, or genetically modified foods, they may enter those words into the search box. In return, they can receive dozens, hundreds, or thousands of results—very few of which may be of interest or use. At that point, they’ll realize that they may need to choose some keywords that produce a smaller selection of results that more adequately suit their research project. On the other hand, they may use keywords that are in fact too narrow, and thereby receive few results that provide any sort of positive direction.

Rather than spending hours at the computer guessing at terms that might elicit something useful, your students’ time is much better spent by first developing a plan of action that supports their ultimate research goals. Below, we share some tips for effective searching, based on suggestions from Donald I. Barker, Melissa S. Barker, and Katherine T. Pinard’s Internet Research Illustrated, Sixth Edition, which can help your students identify keywords that describe their research questions effectively and thereby retrieve the most relevant results:


1. Create a summary sentence about your research topic, e.g. “I want to examine the history of water rights law in California.”

2. Review the sentence, and note which words or phrases could produce the types of results you are seeking. In the above example, you may choose to include “history,” “water rights,” “law,” and “California.” You won’t need to use words such as “a,” “an,” or “the,” because most search engines and databases do not include them as they search for your information.

3. If you are not yet very familiar with the topic, you could look up your keywords in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or other reference resource. You will gather additional background information, and you can also discover additional words that can help you either expand or refine your search. To continue with our example, an encyclopedia article on water rights can lead you to additional related terms such as “appropriation,” “reserved water rights,” or “riparian rights.” You might also consider other issues related to your broader topic, such as soil conditions or animal migration patterns. Alternately, you may get the idea to focus your topic on a particular geographical area (e.g. Northern or Southern California).

4. Once you have crafted your list of terms, consider entering them into a keyword generator. Though these tools are primarily by web designers, they can also help you, as a researcher, identify synonyms and alternate phrases that will bring up additional resources on the web or in a database. (Barker et al., p. 6)


Reference: Barker, D.I., Barker, M.S., and Pinard, K.T. 2012. Internet Research Illustrated, 6th ed. Boston, MA: Course Technology, Cengage Learning.


What are your suggestions for conducting online searches that produce relevant results? Share your tips and techniques below, or submit them to [email protected].