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Information Literacy Concepts : Chapter 5

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The Research Process: Settling on a topic, identifying keywords, and retrieving the information you need


The Research Process:  Settling on a topic, identifying keywords, and retrieving the information you need

We will approach the research process in this chapter by looking at examples of student research.  Before that, though, we need to cover some basic, essential terms.


Have you ever searched online for a product to buy?  Then you have probably used limiters.  For example, suppose that you have a list of these limiters, allowing us to limit our search results to only a certain price range, or to only Mac or PCs, or to a certain display size.  Library limiters work the same way, let-ting you limit your search results to only books and eBooks, or only scholarly articles.  You can limit your results to only certain publication date ranges, to specific languages, and even to only search results where the full text of the item is immediately available.

Boolean Operators

When librarians use the phrase “Boolean operators,” we refer mainly to the words AND, OR, and NOT.  These words work a little differently in library search tools than they do in every day speech.  Having a working knowledge of Boolean operators and integrating that knowledge into your searches will make your future research both quicker and more effective.

How Keywords Work

We conduct keyword searches in Google often daily.  The basic process seems clear—we type in a word or string of words and Google provides us with a ranked list of websites on which those words appear.  This is how we find products to buy on Amazon and how we find the music we enjoy on iTunes or Spotify. 

Choosing a topic and keywords: a scenario

Colleen’s composition instructor has assigned a research paper to the class.  Colleen has never written a college-level research paper before and is uncertain about the best topic to help her succeed on the paper.  Recently a younger cousin of Colleen told her about some negative experiences on Twitter and remarked on how social media can make otherwise pleasant people yell at total strangers.  Colleen thought this might be a promising idea for a research paper, and she consulted with her composition instructor.  The instructor was supportive of Colleen’s topic, but felt it was too broad a topic.  Colleen would need to narrow her topic to a more researchable question.  Colleen accepted this, but struggled.  She mused on her initial topic idea:  “How does Twitter affect the way people talk to each other?”  What aspect of this topic most engaged her?  How could she narrow it further?

The journey from choosing a topic to completing a re-search-based assignment is called the research process.  It is made up of all the necessary steps you complete to be successful in finding the information you need.  Choosing a topic is an important early part of that process.

Flexibility is a virtue when choosing a topic, and your finished topic may not always look exactly like your original one.  Your original topic might be too broad (as in Colleen’s case) or too narrow, or there may not be enough information on your topic, or you may discover a more interesting one as you conduct your research.

Once you have a general idea of your topic, you may be tempted to head straight for the library databases to begin your search, and you may not initially see a lot of useful information.  This does not mean you have a bad topic.  Begin instead with a search for background information, especially if you are not familiar with the subject area. This will help to better inform and define your topic.

As you search for background information, look for key-words that you may be able to use a search terms within the databases.   These may be words that you see over and over as you read through the information on your topic.  Your keywords may also be synonyms or related terms.

Colleen reflected on her topic.  Twitter seemed like a good, solid keyword.  But was there a better, more succinct way of describing “the way people talk to each other?”  How about “communication?”

She now had two keywords: Twitter and Communication.  Because she wanted to find articles that mentioned Twitter and communication within the same article, Colleen knew to include the Boolean operator “AND” in her initial search:

Twitter AND communication

As you recall, Boolean operators like AND, OR, and NOT allow researchers to construct more complex searches, providing only items with the required keywords in their search results, or excluding content from their results.

Still, Colleen was not satisfied with her initial search results.  Using advice she had received in a library instruction class, she experimented with her keywords.

Instead of “Twitter,” she tried “social media.”  Instead of “communication,” she tried “personal communication.”  She found useful results this way, but still wasn’t satisfied.  She reflected more on how Twitter affected the way people talk to each other.  It certainly seemed like people were meaner on Twitter than in real life.  Was there a useful keyword in that?  A keyword related to anger or aggression?

Anger and aggression are synonyms, and she wanted to find articles that included either of the terms.  She knew the Boolean operator “OR” would be helpful, and wrote:

“social media” AND “personal communication” AND (anger OR aggression By using “OR,” she knew articles using either term would appear in her search results, provided the other two key-words were also present.

One result Colleen noticed was on cyber bullying. That’s it!  Not only had Colleen narrowed her topic sufficiently, she had already found some articles.