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Plan your search

By planning your search and having a clear search strategy you will become more aware of what you are doing.

Below, we will describe the search process step by step. Real searches are rarely done in that way exactly, though. Often, you will discover new aspects along the way that will make you reconsider the earlier steps. The important thing is not to follow the steps in the right order, but to be aware of what it is that you are actually doing when you are searching for information in a strategic way.

Formulate the research question

What do I need information about? Formulate it in plain language. If you need to clarify the topic you can read about it in an encyclopedia, for instance.

Example: How does corruption affect the democratization process in poor countries?

Think through your information need and prepare

What kind of information do I need? In what sources can I find it?

If you want to capture a current debate you will probably need to search among newspaper and magazine articles. For longer periods of time you can consult encyclopedias and books.

Should the sources be of scholarly nature? Then you need to look for scholarly journals, conference proceedings or research reports.

Read more about Sources and how to use them.

You may also need to limit your search:

  • Geography: Which countries am I interested in?
  • Language: Should I search for all information irrespective of language?
  • Publication date: Should I limit my search to publications published during a specific time period?

Example: I will limit my topic to Africa. I can read publications in English and Swedish. I will need to acquaint myself with political theories on democratization. For this I will use books and perhaps journal articles. I also want to find statistics on democracy and corruption in African countries. Finally, I would also like to reflect on the latest events. This I will find in news media.

The more you know about your area the better will the conditions be for you to get your search right. There are many ways to prepare for this. An easy way is to ask a teacher or some other person who is familiar with the subject. Another way is to start from a known publication and looking up its references to other publications. Yet another common way is to use handbooks on the subject. The present the research within the subject and contain references to important researchers and their publications.

Choose search tools

When you have formulated a research question and thought about what type of information you need it is time to choose appropriate search tools.

Search services/discovery tools are services that search in a great number of sources using one single interface.

Article databases contain articles from journals. Depending on the character of the database they may comprise scholarly journals or trade magazines, or a combination of several publication types.

E-book databases contain e-books.

Facts databases are databases that supply statistics, company information or information about countries etc.

Citation databases contain information on who have cited particular authors and publications.

See the guide Search tools - an overview for a detailed presentation of different search tools.

Example: Books on political  theories can be searched for in Primo - the library search tool, or directly in any of the e-book databases. Journal articles can be found by searching in search service or in the article database Worldwide Political Science Abstracts. To see which articles and authors are well cited in the subject area, you can use a citation database like Scopus. Statistics can be found in facts databases like OECD iLibrary and UNdata. Certain Swedish newspaper articles are archived in full text in the database Retriever research. International news can be searched for with Google News.

Choose search terms

What search terms should I use? It is important to know what terms are used within the specific subject field. The easiest way is to read about them in encyclopedias, handbooks or other overviews.

Before you start searching with these terms it is also important to know the following:

  • the language of the search tool
  • are you searching in the whole text of the publication (free text) or only in titles or other kinds of metadata?

Read more in the guide Choosing search terms.

When you start searching in the databases you may use different kinds of techniques to limit your searches. When you are searching among hundreds of thousands of publications you will get more relevant hits if you know something about these search techniques. Also, you will probably need to go back one or two steps to reassess your search words.

Learn more about this in the guide Search techniques.

Evaluate and re-examine your search

Do the publications that you have found match your information need? Sometimes, as you are learning more about a subject, you will have to reformulate your search problem. Then you will also need to re-examine your choice of search tools and search terms.

Be creative and reflect on your search result. This is a natural part of the search process.

Evaluate critically

You should always have a critical viewpoint to the documents and publications you find during the search process and evaluate them based on their credibility and reliability.


Saunders, Mark, Lewis, Philip & Thornhill, Adran (2007). Research methods for business students (4. ed). Harlow: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.

Rumsey, S. (2008). How to find information: A guide for researchers (2. ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press. Retrieved from

Continue to Sources and how to use them

Content updated 2017-12-18

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