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Planning, Design & the Built Environment: Search Tips & Strategies

Resources for the interdisciplinary PDBE doctoral program

Essential Search Tools

Boolean Operators and their accessories:

AND, OR, NOT in combination, using ( )

Truncation: Expands search to include other forms of a word (up to 5 characters); can be used for variant spellings that add a letter

comput*= computer, computers, computing, computation, but not computational

architect* = architect, architects, architecture, architectural, architectonic

colo*r  labo*r  arch*eology

Wild card: Stands in for unknown or variable letters (useful for irregular plurals)


Precise word order: Use "quotation marks"

Never Waste a Search!

Many databases allow you to save searches as you go. (Some require a simple registration before this feature is enabled.) This can save you from a lot of duplicated effort. Plus, you can use the database tools to refine one already-completed search by another, or to add a new search term to any search.

Wherever possible, search multiple databases at the same time. Most database vendors allow you to select and search several databases in combination. (Caution: There are pitfalls to this approach. Databases may share a user interface without sharing the same indexing rules or subject heading vocabularies. Combining databases works best once you're familiar enough with your 'instruments' to know which work best in concert.)

Save your citations. As your search progresses, save your best results in RefWorks, or Zotero (or the citation management tool of your choice). Use folders to organize your citations by topic, or source, or application in your argument (background, research method, conclusion). Name your folders carefully, so that you'll recognize your original intentions later on.

Create Search Alerts, to be notified when additions to a database match your search criteria.

Getting Started

You'll probably never pursue a research problem the same way twice; in most cases, your topic will direct your approach--once you get started. Here are a few strategies to get you off the mark and moving forward:

Identify a benchmark resource, then cast your net from there.

  • Who wrote it? What else has this person written or collaborated on?
  • What previous works does the author cite? Who has cited this work since it was published? Start a list of authors who write on your topic.
  • What are their institutional affiliations? Do these institutions have strong programs in this area, or perhaps research centers? Start another list.
  • What aspect of the work did these authors cite? Did they agree or disagree? Was their application of it in the same specific field, or in another area?
  • What subject headings appear with the benchmark? What other works share the same or a similar combination of subject headings? Make a list of relevant subject headings. Keep a similar list of terms authors use to define and discuss your topic.
  • What about the benchmark's call number--what books come before and after it on the library shelf? Call numbers are meaningful.
  • Was it reviewed? What did the reviewers think? To what similar or contrary works did the reviewer relate or compare the work?
  • In what publication did it appear? What else has been published on your topic in this publication? If it's a book, is it part of a series? What about other titles in the series? Does the publisher of the book specialize in your topic?

* Make lists of all these, and keep track of them in a project journal. Carry your journal with you for the duration of the project.

Talk it out--even if it means talking to yourself!

Discuss your topic with others. How do you know what you mean (or where the holes are in your knowledge) until you hear what you have to say? and have considered others' arguments once you've said it?

* Keep track of your ideas and inspirations--and the input of others--in a project journal. Don't let that flash of brilliant insight go unrecorded!

If you already have a great idea:

Brainstorm on potential search terms, then use these to develop more keywords. Keep working lists, organized by CONCEPT (see box below). Use Boolean operators (AND, OR) and power-search techniques (truncation, wild cards, quotation marks, concept grouping) to combine, limit, expand, and qualify your search terms.

* Carry your keyword/concept lists with you--ways to add to and refine them will occur to you often, whether you're actively searching or just going through your day.

Concept Organization is Key!

A successful research campaign depends on a well-structured combination of logic and creativity--think of it as highly organized associative thinking. Try this method of maintaining focus while maximizing results:

  1. Break the expression of your topic down into basic concept categories. Keep these as essential as possible.
  2. Brainstorm to come up with a useful range of variations on your basic concept (synonyms, broader terms, narrower terms). Pare the concept down to single words, and make a list. Your list will probably include both nouns and adjectives, because you need to consider the several ways a concept might be expressed in your topic area.

    Here's a simplified example of what an organized Concept list might look like for a project addressing design considerations for mental health facilities for children:

    Building type concept Client group concept Design concept
    "mental health facility" children*
    "mental health"
    (facility OR facilities)
    (center* OR centre*)

  3. Use truncation (*) to expand search terms to include their singular, possessive, and plural forms.
  4. Construct your searches by combining your terms appropriately:

    - Use OR to combine variations within a concept category into a single expression of that category.

      EXAMPLE: children OR adolescents OR teenagers OR pediatric

    - Use AND to limit or qualify one category by another, or to limit/qualify each category by a precise subject heading and/or keyword.

      EXAMPLE: (children* OR adolescent* OR teenager* OR pediatric) AND "mental health facilites"

    - Use parentheses to keep your concept categories clear and separate, as well as to group them effectively.

      EXAMPLE: (("mental health" OR psychiatr* OR psychotherap* OR counsel*) AND (hospital* OR clinic* OR residential OR facility OR facilities)) AND (children* OR adolescent* OR teenager* OR pediatric) AND (design* OR planning OR architect*)