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Tarleton State University Libraries Unit 4
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To begin locating materials, researchers must first identify viable search terms. This process can involve several steps and resources as explained below.

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image of a key   Identifying key concepts in a topic involves analyzing an information need and identifying main ideas related to that need. For example, if you need to find materials to help you discuss "how personality influences decision-making in small groups" you might choose the following terms as the key concepts: 1) personality, 2) decision-making, 3) small groups.

Often choosing nouns and unique words as your key words works well. Also, using words that seem typical for a topic usually works well.

Determining key words also involves thinking about your subject and determining what words would probably be used to "label" information in an online or print search tool. Since library catalogs and databases search specific fields (parts of an item's record), thinking about what words might be used as labels is useful. Also, because some Internet tools search entire works, identifying key words and possible synonyms helps reduce the number of irrelevant searches in results lists.

This process is really no different than the one used to locate business listings in the yellow pages--similar businesses are grouped together under somewhat standardized labels. However, just like when we use the yellow pages, sometimes what we are looking for is listed under a heading we would not have considered. This is also the case with search tools because they usually incorporate controlled vocabularies.

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image of books   Controlled Vocabulary Terms are more sharply-defined word choices than we use in daily conversations. These terms are used in most search tools. Their use arose from the need to solve searching issues that were created by the ambiguity in many words and the fact that many terms are often used to name the same thing. For example, the words bosses, managers, supervisors, and executives are often used interchangeably.)

Most search tools incorporate controlled vocabulary terms (also called standardized language) so that items related to a topic are indexed and retrievable using the same terms. However, the use of controlled vocabulary terms often makes using search tools difficult unless researchers are familiar with a discipline or profession and its terminology.

To increase the chances of retrieving relevant results in online search tools, most are designed to search "free text" fields (e.g. title and abstract) in addition to the "subject terms" fields. However, knowing the subject terms used in a specific search tool will greatly enhance the efficiency of a researcher's time and efforts.

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image of a computer and books   Sources for Search Term Ideas: Lists of controlled vocabulary terms are often available in online databases through links called "subject terms," "thesaurus terms," or "preferred terms." Also, databases and library catalogs usually incorporate subject terms as part of a retrieved item's record, which helps researchers identify words to use in searches.

Subject-specific periodical indexes and abstracts are also good sources to use when picking search terms because headings in these search tools usually transfer well to online searches. For example, Business Periodicals Index would be a good source of possible search terms to use when researching business-related topics.

In addition, specialized subject heading guides and thesauri like the Thesaurus of International Trade Terms and the Texas State Publications Thesaurus offer lists of controlled vocabulary terms, which can be incorporated into searches.

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In summary, the following processes are useful when determining search terms:

•  Identify key concepts in an information need.
•  Consult a subject heading guide or thesaurus for a specific field.
•  Consult the subject list or thesaurus for a specific online search tool.
•  Look at headings in periodical indexes and abstracts that list citations related to your subject.
•  Look at item records when using online search tools. Note the terms listed in the subject or descriptor fields and use them in searches.

Locating materials often requires searching with both print and online search tools. Therefore, the next few sections offer tips for creating efficient searches in these tools to retrieve more precise and relevant results.

 left arrow  Unit 4: Overview and Goals Refining Searches in Print Tools  right arrow 
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Updated 7/2004