Research mindedness

Searching for material

If you carried out the exercise above about moving from fuzzy ideas to a sharper focus you will already have started to search for material. Sometimes you will come across a really useful source through this sort of search, just as you will from checking the references at the end of a research report, journal paper or book. Newsletters that you can sign up for, from institutions such as the NSPCC or the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), or providers like CareKnowledge, can also provide you with unexpected good fortune in finding appropriate material for your interests.

However, this rather hit-or-miss approach to searching for material, although useful, is unlikely to provide a strong knowledge and evidence base. Some kinds of literature-based research, such as a systematic review, gain their strength and reputation from extensive, methodical searching for every conceivable piece of research on a subject, a task that usually involves a research team and takes considerable time, and so is beyond the scope of most students and research-minded practitioners.

Where to search?

Much searching is done online nowadays, but gaining access to all the information you might need will vary depending on whether you are a student or not, because students will have access to a wide range of resources through their library services. For students, the most important thing here is to get to know what your library has available in the way of electronic journals, indexing and abstract databases such as ASSIA or PsycInfo, or subscriptions to other online resources.

If you are not a student, you need to ask if your workplace has any links to online resources. There are also places where there is open access to some studies, such as government websites and research organisations. You will sometimes find that Google Scholar has a freely downloadable file linked to a source. The list below suggests both subscription and open access sources.

A searching strategy

No matter whether you are carrying out a traditional literature review, are involved with a systematic review, are searching for research to support your practice or a piece of coursework, in order to search for material effectively you are advised to work in a systematic way. It is helpful to have a searching strategy in place to guide your work. This will not only assist you in your current work, but means that when you want to update your evidence base you can start with the same keywords and search framework, while setting the dates to be searched from your previous research dates.

Make sure that you record:

This list can be thought of as a map for your research strategy, so that you, and your colleagues, are clear about what took place and can replicate the search in the future.There are some examples of this in Searching systematically.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria: keeping your project manageable

Once you have a research focus, you need to decide how to limit your search. This is for two reasons. The first is that time is limited, and reviewing the literature thoroughly can be time consuming. The second is that there is a vast amount of research and other sources of data out there, and it is easy to become swamped in a search and find it hard to locate the evidence that you are specifically looking for. Further to this, once you have found some research, some of it might not be appropriate to your focus and can be excluded. Setting inclusion and exclusion criteria can help to map out your priorities and focus.

The sorts of things you might consider when creating a map for your search are:

There is a good example of a map of inclusion criteria in Appendix 2 of SCIE systematic research reviews: guidelines (Rutter et al. 2010: 8). Note that this lists the exclusion criteria! At the bottom of the chart the researchers have stated that what is included is anything that is not listed in the exclusion criteria.

Be flexible with your inclusion and exclusion criteria. For example, if you set your date criteria to within the last five years and find little that is helpful, then extend the dates. If you say you are only going to look for research specifically with fathers, you might need to look for research with parents, and then find out what is said about fathers within that report. This approach also helps you to get a feeling for gaps in the research - in which areas would further research be beneficial? Since it is unlikely that you will be carrying out a formal systematic review, remember that a traditional literature review has strengths as well, allowing for a more reflective approach which can tie in to a specific practice context and 'often providing insights that can be neglected or passed over in the steps towards exclusion and quality control that are required in the systematic review model' (Jesson et al. 2011: 15).

Activity:

Use your research focus to create a list of inclusion or exclusion criteria to work with. Next to each item, explain why you will use it and give any guidance needed. Then think about which parameters may need to be extended or restricted, and write these down next to the relevant listing.

Don't forget that in your reading you may come across something that may not have been in your initial search strategy, but may still be important to your analysis. In a traditional review, you can still include these serendipitous finds.

Using keywords

Keywords are used by search engines, journals, catalogues and other databases to index and sort material to allow for searching. A keyword is a word that is central to a description of the work. It may be personal to the author, or may relate to the time period in which the research took place. Depending on where you are searching, a keyword may be in the title, in the abstract, or even in the main body of the text or the references.

For these reasons, you will need to be creative when thinking about keywords which may be relevant to your focus or research question. You do not want your keywords to be too broad or you will have to look through a lot of abstracts or descriptions of work that are completely irrelevant to your focus. Too narrow, and you may miss key pieces of research. How then to produce a good list of keywords?

Once you get a feel for the keywords in use for the area you are researching, you can eliminate some that are peripheral to the topic. However, keep your eyes open! You may spot a keyword in an abstract that looks central to part of your research question, and if this happens, add it to your list.

Activity:

Write down some keywords related to your research focus or questions. Now search on Google Scholar, using one or more of these words, and read the abstract of a journal paper that seems relevant. What keywords does the author use? Are they relevant to your search strategy?

Boolean operators

Once you have some keywords, you can start to search. Although it is possible just to search for one or two keywords together, it is helpful to use Boolean operators to shape your search. These will connect your search words together, expand a search, or limit it by means of exclusion criteria.

The three Boolean operators which many search engines use are AND, OR and NOT.

Additionally, if you want to include a phrase such as 'learning disability' or 'domestic violence' in your search, most search engines use the practice of enclosing the phrase in double quotes in order to signify that those specific words should be used together.

CAUTION! Boolean and other operators do not all work with all search engines. For instance, Google Scholar only lists OR in its search tips It is useful to look at the help file or search tips for each source you intend to search in, as many of them use slightly different syntax to search with. Search Syntax are the rules and language that search engines use to search with: for instance, any special w ords or symbols that act as wildcards or operators in the search.

Searching systematically

Once you have selected some search keywords, places to search in, inclusion and exclusion criteria and Boolean operators to connect them, you need to prepare for managing your finds. Below is a search record table that you can copy to help keep track of your searches.

Note that you may not use exactly the same search terms in each database. In the third column from the right, record the total number of abstracts that you found. You then need to read through the abstracts to decide, on the basis of your inclusion and exclusion criteria, which will stay and which will go.

Some search engines and index databases will let you set some of your exclusion criteria up, usually in their advanced search screen. This means that you can search within certain dates, or only return abstracts where English is the language used, for example.

Search record

Review topic:

Name of database Date of search Search terms Number of abstracts found Number included Number excluded

Below is an example of a completed search record from a social work student's dissertation. This is used with the kind permission of Becki Scotter who completed a social work qualification at the University of York in 2009 (with thanks to Ian Shaw for providing the example). Notice that Becki has altered the base template to provide space for the duplication of 'hits' that you find when searching many databases, and that she redid her search of some of the sources three months after her initial investigation, using a different range of keywords.

Date Database searched Keywords used A Hits B Hits C Hits D Hits
10/11/08 1.e-prints soton (University of Southampton) Search for key informant Interview publications. Traveller AND Education 23 10 3 2
9/01/09 1.Informa-World(Through Metalib gateway) Traveller Education 17 6 1 2
9/01/09 1.ASSIA
2.ESSCO
3.ISI
4.PsycInfo
5.Social Care Online
6.Social services abstracts
Traveller Education AND Social policy AND Social work 21
20
3
14
18
14
10
8
0
2
5
2
3
2
0
2
3
0
2
2
0
1
1
1
11/03/09 1.CSA Illuminata (Through ASSIA ) Travellers AND Education AND Social work 55 14 3 4
31/03/09 1.ASSIA
2.ISI
3.PsycInfo
4.CSA Illuminata
5.ZETOC
Social work AND Settled traveller AND Social services 2
1
2
14
2
1
1
1
6
2
0
1
1
5
2
1
0
0
1
0
Totals 10 databases used (UK and non-UK) 206 68 26 17

A.'Hits' = Number of journals identified on individual databases within the search criteria.
B. 'Relevant' = Journals identified through reading the abstracts as potentially relevant to the scoping study.
C. 'Duplicated' = Journals replicated within that search or other previously conducted searches.
D. 'Used' = Journals that are newly-sourced in that search and are not duplicated from used journals in previous searches.

Activity:

Time to combine all the skills that you have learned so far.

  • Create a search record table using the headings in either of the tables shown here.
  • Using the keywords that you have chosen, search a range of databases and other sources.
  • Make sure that you write down where you searched, when you searched and which keywords/operators you used. It is worth also recording any exclusion parameters you were able to set, such as the date of publication.
  • Save any abstracts that look useful and record the total number of potential finds that you have saved on your table against each database or search engine entry.
  • Now you need to read through the abstracts with your inclusion and exclusion criteria in mind, and exclude all that do not fit in with your focus. This can be hard when a paper looks particularly interesting, so put those in a separate file for future work.
  • Record the numbers that you have been able to include. It is worth checking how many are duplicates across different databases, otherwise you end up with a misleading final figure for the number of papers, books or reports you intend to include.