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Biology library guide to information searches

Limit or expand your search

How many search results are reasonable?

This is not an easy question to answer. The number of publications that you will get not only depends on how well you have designed your search query but also of course on how much research has been done within the subject.

For a course project or a student thesis you will need to define your question so that it is neither too broad nor too narrow. When doing a search in a bibliographic database, ideally you would like to get a number of results where you can at least browse through all titles. What this number is depends on the size of your project (and your ambition) but in general it could be something between 20 and 200. NB! These are general guidelines and not absolute numbers!

When using Google for everyday queries we are used to getting thousand of hits and will generally only look at the first few pages until we either tire or feel that we have found what we were looking for. However, doing a search for scientific literature is different from asking "when does the local supermarket close?" or "what is the boiling point of gold?". There is seldom one single answer to scientific questions and therefore it is important that you find and look through most relevant publications within your subject, covering all (or most) aspects. In other words, try to design your search query so that you feel that you can at least read through all titles in the result. Next step is to select a subset of more relevant publications where you read the abstract, and then you select the most important publications where you read the whole thing.


Too many results

The most common situation when doing a search is that you get too many results. There are several ways to reduce the number of results, for example:

  1. Narrow your research question. Include more specific search terms in your search query.
  2. Do a title field search. Specify that one or more of the most important search words should be present in the title.
  3. Use filters to reduce the result list. For example you can limit the results on newer publications or only reviews.

Too few results

Sometimes it is difficult to find enough relevant results, the reasons for this can be several:

  1. You are not using optimal search terms. Are there other words describing your subject that are more common?
  2. Your research question is too specific. Perhaps you can broaden your search?
  3. There isn't anything to find. Perhaps not many people have done research on your subject of interest.
  4. You are using the wrong search tool. What kind of publications are you after, perhaps the search tool you chose does not cover these?