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Lund University

Education incl. PA & HR: Searching & evaluating information

  The Information Search Process

It's possible to find a large amount of information, but seldom "everything" in a field or to use everyhing that you find. To cover your subject of interest best, it is therefore important that you plan and reflect on your information searching to find as much relevant information as possible. When you search in a systematic way and follow the steps of Preparation - Search/Document - Evaluate you can gain a lot. Even so, be prepared that the process of finding literature will take time and that you might have to start over several times.

 

 

Before you start your search, take the time to reflect about the following:  

· What kind of material will I need?

· Where, in which databases, can I find suitable material?

· How do I search for that material?

· Which limitations should I apply?

· Which search terms can I use?

Encyclopedias can be a good start to get suggestions for keywords and main concepts. Some databases has indexes or so called subject thesauri to help you find subject terms suitable for that database. Also remember to figure out  synonyms and variations for the search words.  You might have to redefine your search terms as you go.

Which sources and literature may be useful? At the starting point of the material gathering process, dissertations, student theses and reference works are good starting points to learn about and get familiar with a new subject area. Reference works, as subject specific encyclopaedias and handbooks, are very useful to get an overview of a research field. You will find comprehensive articles about the research within an issue and references for further reading.

You can optimize your searches by using the most common search techniques. Most search services have a "help session" or an on-line tutorial where they explain which search techniques could be used and how to use them. Common search techniques are boolean search, phrase search  and  the usage of truncation and wild cards.

Always evaluate the material you found and question whether the information is correct - examine the sources critically, for example the authority and actuality of the material. Remember to save your searches and the references/material you find during the search process.

Checklist

No matter where you may have retrieved information from, it is important to have a critical approach towards your sources. Remember that information found on the Internet can be published by basically anyone, so you might have to pay extra attention to the critical evaluation of those sources.

To evaluate your sources, take into consideration the following questions:

WHAT does the material contain? (accuracy & coverage)

Reliability: To which extent is the information credible and accurate? To evaluate the reliability, your own experience and knowledge as well as the source's reputation plays an important role. Does the source have fact checkers or editors?

Relevance: How relevant and/or useful is the material for your needs? Which topics are covered, and to what depth?

References: Which other sources has been cited in the work/material?

Scholarly: Is it a scholarly text or popular science?

Target audience: Who is the intended audience (scholars, school children, general public, et cetera)?

WHO is communicating the information? (authority)

Author: Is the author well known in their field of research? Does the author have academic legitimacy? Has the author been published before? Is there any way to contact the author? In short - what are the author's qualifications for writing on the subject?

Publisher: Who is responsible for the information - a company, an agency,  an organization or an individual? Any contact information? Serious publishers often clearly express who they are and what they do. How reputable is the publisher? 

WHY was the material published? (objectivity)

Purpose: What is the purpose of material or document? Inform, present research, disseminate views, entertain, sway the opinion of the audience...? Is the information presented with a minimum of bias?

WHEN was the material produced or written? (currency)

Up to date: When was the text written? Is the material enough for you topically? Is the publication or web page dated? Updated? If the date is included it may have various meanings: date first created, date placed on the web or date last revised.

Combine search terms - Boolean logic

It´s easy and logic to combine search terms using the words AND, OR and NOT, also called boolean logic or boolean operators.

In databases and search engines you can often combine these by choice, in drop-down menues, but sometimes they can be pre-defined.

Boolean logic works like this:

Search techniques

Truncation

Truncation means that you replace the end of a word with a sign, usually the * sign, alllowing you to search everything starting with a certain stemming.

Example: 

If you write socio* you get sociology, sociological, sociopath etc.

Phrase search

You use phrase search when you want specific words to appear in a specific order. Most databases mark phrases with quotation marks "" before and after the phrase.

Examples: 

"climate change" gives hits for this phrase, but not for the words in other contexts like changes in the climate generally.

"Karl Marx" gives hits for this specific name in this specific order, but not for the Marx brothers or other persons named Karl.

Field search

Databases are constructed by entering data in different fields. There are author, title, year and abstract fields (and many more). You can use these fields for limiting your search.

Example: 

When searching for Michel Foucault you can choose the author field for finding articles by Foucault himself, the abstract field for finding articles mentioning him or the title field for finding articles where he is a prominent figure.

Texts and training on the critical evaluation of sources