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Thomas W. Cole Library's Home on LibGuides: Intro to Research

Basic Search Tips

Brainstorm for synonyms and related search terms.
You will need to translate these terms to keywords later when you are searching databases for articles and sources. Even if a combination of words works well in one database, you may have to change keywords to find results in another database. 


first generation



Related terms:

first gen

household income 

national origin 


first in family

social hierarchy

ethnic group



Evaluate your sources using the 5 W's:

  • Who: ...wrote it? Are they an expert?
  • What: the purpose of this resource?
  • Where: ...was this information published? ...does the information come from?
  • When: ...was this published or last updated?
  • Why: this resource useful? this resource better than other ones?

CRAAP is an acronym for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. Use the CRAAP Test to evaluate your sources.

Currency: the timeliness of the information

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Is the information current or out-of date for your topic?
  • Are the links functional?   

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use?
  • Would you be comfortable using this source for a research paper?

Authority: the source of the information

  • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
  • Are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations given?
  • What are the author's qualifications to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or e-mail address?
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source?
    •  examples:
      • .com (commercial), .edu (educational), .gov (U.S. government)
      • .org (nonprofit organization), or
      • .net (network)

Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem biased and free of emotion?
  • Are there spelling, grammar, or other typographical errors?

Purpose: the reason the information exists

  • What is the purpose of the information? to inform? teach? sell? entertain? persuade?
  • Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact? opinion? propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases?

Search databases using keywords, such as concepts or subject phrases, that are linked together by and, or, not  used to to identify articles and sources. Once you have identified your topic, selecting your keywords is pretty simple.  

1.  Divide your topic into parts.
In the question, "How do the experiences of first-gen students compare based on socioeconomic status or race, ethnicity, culture, background?" The concepts are: First-generation students, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, culture. 

2.  Follow the database-specific language.

As you do your searching, keep track of the words that appear in the detailed descriptions, or records, of your results list in the fields that will be labeled with headings such as subjects, descriptors, or subject headings. These synonyms and related terms are the specific vocabulary used to describe your search term in that database or discipline.  Using these in your search can often improve your search results by making it more accurate and efficient/less time.

Example sentence

Keywords: social media, candidate preference, 2016 US presidential election

Most library databases have search tools built in. Try some of these:Search Tools

  • Subject: Think of subjects as official hashtags. Use them to find sources about that subject.
  • Date Range: Limit your search to sources published between specific years.
  • Peer Reviewed: Limit your search to scholarly journal articles.
  • Full Text: Make sure all of the results are available to read in full.

Look on the left and right of your search results, or for an "advanced search" page to find these tools - and more!

Advanced Search Tips

Use the operator AND to find only sources that mention both keywords.

social media AND candidate preference

This search will bring back fewer results than searching either keyword on its own.Using AND to cut down on results

Use the OR operator to expand your search with additional keywords.

social media OR Facebook

This will find sources that include either word, so you'll see more results than by searching for just one keyword.

Using OR to get more results

Use the “QUOTES” strategy to search for several words in a phrase.

"social media"

This will bring back results that only use that exact phrase.

searching field

Narrowing your Research Topic

Here are just a few steps to help you narrow down your research topic:

  1. Reread your assignment.
    1. Make sure you understand what the professor expects: research paper, bibliography, narrative non-fiction, . . . 
    2. Highlight and record in your calendar the due date!  Don't lose points by missing deadlines.
  2. Rewrite or highlight the topic.  It is best for you to write the topic and to try to write it in your own words.  
  3. Find the keywords in the topic.  These should be the first words you use to find resources.
  4. Make a list of synonyms.  These can be used if your original keywords do not produce enough results. 
  5. Once you have your keywords, you decide which database to begin using.  We usually recommend starting with Academic Search Complete.
    1. Try using Boolean logic terms (AND, NOT, OR) to pull resources most closely associated and using your keywords.
    2. Make sure you know what type of resources your professor is allowing on the assignment: Scholarly only, last 5 years only, . . . 
  6. Lastly, if you need help at any step come by Cole and see any of the library staff members.  We are here to help you!

Boolean Logic Terms

Did you know that using Boolean logic can help cut down on the number of resources you need to sort through?  It is a great way to save time and find resources mostly closely related to your research.

Boolean has 3 terms: AND, NOT, OR.  Here is a quick break down of what they do!

AND - This term causes the database or website to look for items that contain both of the keywords.  Depending on the database or website, you can actually search more than two keywords at once.  This should shrink your results list.

NOT - This term causes the database or website to exclude items that contain the "NOT" word.  This should shrink your results list.

OR - This term causes the database or website to include any of the keywords you enter.  This will grow your results list.  This is a good term to use if you cannot seem to find anything or there are several synonyms for your assignments keywords.

NOTE: Google does not allow "NOT".  You will need to substitute "-" in front of the keyword you wish to exclude.

Go Forth Inspired