Your Research Strategy

Before you begin your research, it can be very helpful to plan a strategy. This involves: (1) clearly defining your topic and expressing it as a sentence or question, (2) identifying key words and subject headings, (3) deciding on resources to use, (4) using search techniques most appropriate for the resources chosen, (5) keeping track of your sources.

Defining Your Topic

Often it helps to express your topic as a question or statement. Examples:

What is the relationship between athletic participation and academic achievement for high school girls?
Failure to take action to prevent global warming will have disastrous effects on the climate of the U.S. as well as on the insurance industry.
Does death by lethal injection constitute "cruel and unusual punishment?"

Identifying Key Words |Watch a video clip

Most on-line databases and catalogs do not understand complex questions or statements, so it is important to develop a list of keywords from your main question or statement to use in your search. Examples:

"athletic participation" AND "academic achievement" AND girls
"global warming" AND climate AND "insurance industry"
("death penalty" OR "capital punishment") AND "lethal injection" AND "civil rights"


When creating this list think about using synonyms or similar terms (girls/females or death penalty /capital punishment); related terms (global warming/climate change); broader terms (acid rain/pollution); or spelling and word ending variations (athletic, athlete, athletes) to improve the results of your search.


For best results type only the key words into your search box and connect them with Boolean operators like AND, OR, and NOT (See Search Tips: Using Boolean Operators). Avoid using complete sentences and stop words like why, the, an, a, etc.

Using Subject Headings

The use of subject headings can expand the reach of your search. Subject headings or descriptors are terms that have been designated within a particular system to represent certain concepts. Think of the yellow pages in a phone book--the term for doctors may be physicians, for lawyer, attorney. Oftentimes specialized terms are developed by professionals working in a specific field to refer to key concepts. A list of these terms is often referred to as a thesaurus. Examples include the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which may be used when searching library catalogs; the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms for searching psychology indexes and databases; or the Thesaurus of Sociological Indexing Terms for the field of sociology. You may also be given ideas for related terms or broader/narrower terms. On-line databases often include a thesaurus to help you search for the correct term.

Selecting Resources

Consider the nature of your assignment and then decide which resource/s will be most helpful and of the best quality. Going from the general to the specific is a good way to think about doing research, so:

  • Begin your search by looking at reference books like subject encyclopedias and dictionaries in the Reference Room. Here you can get a background for your topic, as well as help in thinking about the best terms to use in your on-line searches. Ask the reference librarian to suggest titles that would be appropriate for your topic.
  • Use the MnPALS Fitz Library catalog to search for books and audio-visual materials. You may also search other libraries and order materials through Interlibrary Loan.
  • Search on-line indexes and databases for access to citations and full text articles from scholarly as well as popular magazines, newspapers, etc. (see Recognizing Scholarly Journals).
  • The Internet is an enormous information resource, but sources here should be carefully evaluated for authority, accuracy, bias, etc. (see Evaluating Internet Sources).

Basic Search Techniques

While search techniques often vary depending on which database or search engine you are using, there are some basic ideas to keep in mind. More effective search results will often come from using Boolean and other logical operators to control the relationship between your keywords and from employing wild cards or truncation to increase your chances of finding sources. (see Search Tips: Using Boolean Operators and Truncation and Wildcards). Spend a few minutes reading the Help pages of the online databases you decide to use, so you will be able to easily extract the most relevant information. Try the "Advanced Search" screens if available; often you get the most help with your searches on these screens.

Tracking Your Sources

Remember to keep track of your research sources as you go; it will make putting your Reference List or Works Cited list together at the end of the process much easier. When you find an online article that you think you will be using as a source, copy and paste its URL or the citation given into a tentative list as you read it, so you will not have to go back later to find the information for your Reference List. For questions about citation, consult the MLA, APA, or ASA Style Books on reserve in the library or go to Citing Sources for examples and links.


Questions? Ask A Librarian.