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CRIM 597: Special Topics

This Guide is created for Barry Ruback's course CRIM 597: special topics

Managing your search: Lesson Objectives

How do you know if you have done enough?

This is a question that I often get from researchers who are collecting information on a topic for their literature review. In this lesson you will be introduced to two general ideas for documenting your search.  

  • Identify and document keywords related to the major concepts of your topic.
  • Develop and document search strings, limits & databases  

     We will also look at two important types of tools that can assist you in managing your search: alerts and citation managers.  

Once you work through this lesson you will: 

  • Delineate between concepts and keywords, identifying keywords that bring up relevant results for your concept. 
  • Trace trajectory from concept to keyword generation to alert management in order to establish an efficient information stream for your citation manager of choice. 
  • Develop search strings, limits, & appropriate database selection in order to build a record of relevant resources. 
  • Create alerts using appropriate keywords and search strings to retrieve relevant information on your topic. 
  • Explore the use of a citation manager to collect, organize, and connect information to assist with managing your research.

Strategy: document search terms

Why would I want to document my search terms?

  • Helps you refine your topic
  • Organize your literature review
  • Provide you with foundation for developing a focused research question
  • Help you communicate with other researchers your strategy (reproducibility)

What is your topic?

"A good research topic is one which you can do with the time and resources you have. Remember, time is money—your own time is a major resource. The resources you have will influence how you will do the research, but you need to have enough to do justice to the topic."  Byrne

What do we mean by concepts? Most topics that you will explore will break down into two to three major concepts or ideas. Concepts can be more of a fluid collection of ideas you have about your topic that may change as you explore the literature.  If they change they you need to record those changes.  

Keywords: are the terms that authors and indexers use to tag or describe the content of the information you discover as you explore the broader concepts.  Keywords may even assist you in redefining and focus concepts.  These keywords could be broad or narrower terms, but all have some relationship with the concept you are exploring.

Below is a simple example of a table you could use to record this stage in managing your search.  Keep in mind that your table could have more concepts and will most likely have more then three keywords.          

Topics should have 2-3 major concepts
  Concept Concept Concept


Let's Explore:

Tagging or more appropriately "scholarly indexing" is a way that librarians and information specialist identify at set of search terms or keywords that can assist them as they explore concepts.  Each library database has its own unique set of subjects that indexers use to assign often available in a thesaurus or subject index.

Simply stated, scholarly indexing is a systematic way to consistently tag information in a library database so that researchers can quickly discover relationships between information and search more effectively.  

sample Sociological Abstracts record showing subject tags and keyword highlighting


On the right is an example of an individual record in Sociological Abstracts for a journal article by Jennifer Van Hook and Jennifer Glick "Immigration and living arrangements: Moving beyond economic need versus acculturation" in the journal Demography 44(2): 225-249.  

Highlighted in red are the subject tags [United States of America; Mexico; Family; Immigration; Households] that indexers of this database have used to describe the content of this particular article written by these two scholars and demographers at Penn State.

Note: Sociological Abstracts also provides a very broad classification scheme highlighted.

Strategy: document search strings & databases

Why would I want to document my search strategy?

  • Allows you to track whether or not you have comprehensively covered all the potential combination of keywords.
  • Helps you critically think about what the search string is actually doing and how the database is behaving with that strategy
  • Allows you to craft search strings that you can use in Alert services to keep you up-to-date  
  • Help you communicate with other researchers your search strategy (reproducibility)

What is a search string? 

A search string is a combination of search terms that you have used to explore an information resource.  How you combine those terms or how the information resource combines your terms is important to know.  Particularly, as we look at other ways to manage your search.  

For example, lets quickly look at the variety of ways we can combine some of the keywords for the article ""Immigration and living arrangements: Moving beyond economic need versus acculturation".  From our example above these were the keywords: United States of America; Mexico; Family; Immigration; Households 

Images taken from the Wikimedia Commons.
Diagram Connecting Word Result
two overlapping circles in white with the overlapping part in red  Family AND Immigration 

Combing terms with AND retrieves information that contains both of those terms.  

Result: you are narrowing your search.

two overlapping circles with the entire two circles in red Family OR Immigration

Combing terms with OR retrieves information that contains at least one of these terms, but not necessarily both.  

Result: you are making your search broader.

two overlapping circles in white, with the left circle in red where it does not overlap with the right circle Family NOT immigration

Combing terms with NOT means that you will retrieve information that has the term family, but not those resources that have the term immigration.

Result: you are limiting your search.

You can also use any combination of those operators in your search string making a very sophisticated and focused search.  For example, Immigration AND (Family OR Households).

This will retrieve information resources that have the term immigration that appear in a resource with those information sources that include (family OR households).


Let's Explore:

Now that you documented concepts and keywords related to your topic, it is equally important to document and communicate how you combined those keywords into a search strategy in a particular database.  This documentation includes (with examples):

Search Strategy Documentation
Name of the database Search string used Limits on the search 
Academic complete immigration and living conditions Limiters - Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals
Sociological Abstracts su(immigration) AND su(living conditions) Limiters: last 12 months, Scholarly (Peer Reviewed Journals)
Google Scholar immigration "living conditions" source:social forces Limiters: since 2013

Note: most of the necessary information can be found in search history of a database as you are exploring.  For example, you may not know that the syntax for limiting to the subject field is su(term) in sociological abstracts, because you used the drop down menus to do this.  But, the search history will provide the correct syntax that you can use to track this information.  

Strategy: Creating alerts

Most databases and scholarly journals have some type of alert service that you can use to make sure that you don't missed newly published material on your topic. This is another reason why crafting a good search string with appropriate keywords is important for managing your search. An alert can be for a particular database as well as for a specific journal

Below are information are links for how to create alerts from the two major database publishers (EbscoHost and Proquest).  To use these you will need to create a free account within the product.

Strategy: managing your publications

What is a Citation Manager?

A Citation manager is a tool that allows you to collect, organize , and seamlessly connect those information source in your research paper so that you can easily change citation formats based on the requirements of the publisher.

Each of these tools in varying degrees allow you to:

  • organize your personal research library 
  • collaborate with colleagues and share papers
  • cite papers from your library and change citation styles with the the touch of a button
  • annotate and mark up article PDFs
  • generate bibliographies automatically with Word or OpenOffice
  • synchronize your research paper library across multiple devices
  • communicate with other researchers via an online network featuring such as newsfeeds, comments, profile pages, 

The three most popular Citation Managers are:  

Google Scholar also provides some interesting tools to help manage your research.