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Plan your searches

You are expected to base your thesis on scholarly sources. When faced with a large number of Google hits, it can be difficult to distinguish between quality-controlled and unsubstantiated information.

Spend lots of time gathering information for your thesis. Make use of relevant resources. BIBSYS provides an excellent overview of books, journals and other publications held by specialist libraries in Norway.

From brainstorming to searching

Start with a general theme, and then formulate more specific research questions. Use these to identify important keywords and concepts to use as search terms.

  1. Write down a topic or a research question that you want to investigate.
  2. Write down all the words that come up when you think about this topic.
  3. Make a list of relevant search terms.
  4. What synonyms do you need to cover this topic?
  5. Do you need search terms in other languages? Write them down!
  6. Try combining different keywords.
EXAMPLE: Suppose that you have formulated the following research question:
“Israel as a democracy. Can voluntary organisations (NGOs) act as drivers for the development of democracy in the state of Israel?”

Brainstorming: Search terms for this research question: Israel, peace processes, NGOs, voluntary organisations, human rights, national identity, religious identity, conflict, teenagers, youth, peace, democracy, politics
Here “Israel” is your broad subject term, as well as your general topic. In order to get a good overview of the available material, try combining Israel one by one with the other terms, e.g., Israel and peace processes, Israel and conflict and so on.

Subject terms

Bear in mind the following:

  • Remember that the same search terms may have different meanings in different fields. Identify the correct subject term for your particular field.
  • Be aware that subject terms that produce good results in one database may be less useful in another.
    • Use more general search terms in library databases.
    • Use more specialised search terms in journal databases.
    • Use everyday words and expressions in news media databases.
  • Find out whether the database you are searching in has a subject word index or a thesaurus (hierarchical subject index, e.g., Medical Subject Headings, MeSH) that can be helpful for choosing search terms.
  • What languages should you use for your searches?
  • Look at your research questions. Could searching a database from a different field be useful?

By now you should have at least a basic overview of your general topic and a provisional thesis statement. Are there any words in your research questions that stand out? Use these to clarify and narrow down your thesis statement. Prepare search terms carefully before starting to search in more detail.

Example of research question and search

Imagine you are writing an economics paper. You need to find answers to the following questions: “What level of future earnings do you predict for the bakery company Godt Brød? And how should the company be valued today in the light of future earnings?” Possible search terms could include:

Search terms Synonyms
Valuation Estimate, statement of value
Organic Sustainable
Method Technique, process

Combine different search terms

Combine different search terms to get as many relevant hits as possible.

  • Combine your search terms using AND – OR – NOT (so-called Boolean operators).
  • Try combining words that describe the same aspect of your research question with the Boolean operator OR. Next try combining the different aspects with AND. Study the diagram below, where search terms for the above example are combined:


Get to know the database

Before you start searching in a database, you should spend some time getting to know its functions. Think about how you can use these to narrow down your search. Find out whether the database has a thesaurus and think about whether you should use narrower or broader search terms. Most databases let you select publication period and language. Some specialist databases will also allow you to narrow your search within a particular field. For example, you might limit your search to a particular methodology. Use these functions in conjunction with the limitations imposed by your own research questions.


Make a list of keywords and concepts to use as search terms.

Search words Synonyms

Evaluate the information you have found

Evaluate the search results and sources you have found. Save any relevant results. Is the information you have found relevant to your research question? Do you need to narrow or broaden your search? If your search has produced too little information, try to search using more general terms. You might get more hits by truncating your search terms. Truncation means searching for the root of a word plus a wildcard symbol such as ? or * in order to generate more hits. Find out what symbols are recognised by your database. Type the root of the word for which you want to generate more hits and add * or ?. Your search will now find the root word with different endings, as well as compound words that include the root word.

A search for tourism and Norway in Oria (all libraries) gives 2527 hits, while a search for touris* and Norway gives 44548 hits (January 2015). 

If you get too many hits, try to be more specific.

A search for tourism and Norway in Oria (all libraries) gives 2527 hits, while a search for tourism and Troms* gives 1032 hits (January 2015).

When evaluating the sources you have found, you should also consider whether you should reformulate your research question. Have you found information that provides different angles to your research question? If you decide to reformulate your research question, you should modify your search strategy accordingly.

Last updated: January 26, 2015

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