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How to Research

Just getting started on a research paper or project? Don't know where to start? This is the guide for you!


Develop A Strategy

Create a search strategy before you start to look for information, to make your searching more efficient and effective create a list of possible search words, then choose the best tool(s) for searching.

Video Tutorials (MHC):

Select Search Words

When doing research, your chances of finding relevant information can be improved by brainstorming and selecting good search words or keywords.

Keywords are:

  • typically nouns
  • the main points of your topic

Don't forget to think of synonyms for your keywords as well.

MHC Library keyword video tutorial

Start with Your Research Statement or Question

Getting Started!

Step 1

Take a look at your research question or statement and note the main terms.

What is the effect of sleep deprivation on the grades of post-secondary students?

Words highlighted in green are the main terms.

Step 2

Think of synonyms or related words. E.g.:

  • Sleep deprivation: sleep disturbance, sleep difficulty, sleep loss
  • Grades: academic achievement, academic performance
  • Post-secondary students: college students, university students

Be sure to consider:

  • alternate spellings
  • abbreviations
  • plurals
  • synonyms
  • alternate scientific or technical terms


Brainstorming keywords doesn't stop! 

As you research your topic, be sure to make note of relevant search words that you come across along the way. 

Combine Search Words

A keyword search is a great way to start your search.

Narrow or broaden your keyword search by using search strategies such as:

  • connectors
  • nesting
  • truncation

Using Phrase Searching

When do you use it? When you want specific words to appear together.

How do you do it? Put quotation marks around the phrase to be searched.

Example: "women in advertising"


Using Synonyms

When do you use them? Use synonyms to broaden or narrow your search.


  • "women in advertising"
  • "females in advertising"

These searches would give you different results.

What do you use connectors (also called Boolean operators) for?

To broaden or narrow your search by linking together two or more terms.

The most common connectors are: AND, OR, and NOT.

Using AND

AND narrows a search; you get fewer results because both words must be present in the records found.

Use AND to combine different concepts in one search:

computer AND history

Using OR

OR broadens a search; you get more results because OR looks for each of the words separately, as well as all words when found together.  

OR is often used to link together related words.

Example: teenager OR youth OR adolescent

Using NOT

NOT narrows your search; you get fewer results becuase it excludes terms from your search.

Example: pluto NOT disney

Nesting keeps concepts that are alike together, and tells a search engine to search the terms in the parentheses first.

Using Nesting

Use parentheses to group concepts when you use two or more connectors.

Example: alcohol AND (adolescents OR teenagers)

This search will retrieve records on alcohol and adolescents, as well as records on alcohol and teenagers.

Truncation characters are like wildcards.

Using Truncation

Adding a truncation character to the stem of a word will tell the search engine to find that stem plus anything that comes after it.

Example: childwill return records that contain child



This saves you time when searching, since you don't have to search for child, childhood, and children separately.  

You can sometimes use truncation in the middle of a word, too.

Example: wom*n or wom$n will return records that contain women and woman

The symbol used to truncate a word depends upon the search tool you are using. Check out the help feature of the specific tool to find out if truncation is supported and what symbol to use.

Search by Subject

Subject searches are more focused than keyword searches and can provide more accurate results.

Library catalogues and most article databases support subject searches.

Most library catalogues and article databases will let you search by subject.

The advantage of subject searching is a more focused search.

However, when you start, you likely will not know what pre-determined subject terms describe a topic.

  • For article databases, look for "Subject Terms" or a "thesaurus," or check the Help menu to find out if there is a specialized set of subject terms used.
  • For MHC Library's catalogue (and most library catalogues), subjects are determined from the Library of Congress Subject Headings. 

Here are some examples of database subject terms generated from a search for "marketing to children":


And here is an example from the Library Catalogue:


A good strategy for subject searching is:

  1. First, use your own terms as a Keyword search.
  2. Then, look at the records retrieved for the search results that are on your topic.
  3. Jot down any good subject terms that are listed and use them later in subject searches, or
  4. Click on the linked subject term.

A subject search can be especially useful for finding out about authors, rather than finding works by the author. E.g., books or articles about Oscar Wilde rather than works by Oscar Wilde.

Choose a Subject search vs. a Keyword search in the Library Catalogue or an article database to see the difference.


Select a Search Tool

The type of tool you use to search will change depending on the kind of information that you need.

Generally, you will find books and DVDs in the Library Catalogue, articles in an article database, and websites through a search engine.

However, there are sometimes exception to the rule; you may find articles listed in some library catalogues and you may find book chapters indexed in an article database.

Use the library catalogue to find:

  • books
  • DVDs
  • encyclopedias

Use an article database to find:

  • newspaper articles
  • magazine articles
  • journal articles

Use a search engine to find:

  • websites
  • blogs
  • podcasts

The type of information you need will change depending on the question you are trying to answer.

Information goes through a process as it moves from new discovery to established knowledge. This process is called the information cycle.

Once you know how information gets produced, it can help you to decide which sources to use when doing research.

It is important to understand the information cycle because it affects where you will find information on a particular topic.

For instance, information about AIDS is much further along in the cycle than information about Avian Flu, because it has been around for much longer. Therefore, there will be many more books and encyclopedia articles about AIDS than about Avian Flu.

Here is a timeline of how a story or event evolves through the media.  For example, think about where you get your information during and after an election:

Radio/TV/Internet... up to the minute or same day

Information on an event will likely appear here first, because it can be published quickly; however, it is not always detailed or accurate because people are anxious to get the information published as quickly as possible.

On the day of the actual election, you watch the results on TV, listen to them on the radio, or check them on the Internet.

Use a website:

  • to find current information
  • to find information about companies
  • to find information from all levels of government - federal to local
  • to find both expert and popular opinions

Newspapers...  at least by next day
Information usually appears here next, although generally not until a day after the event at the earliest because of their publication cycle. The information is usually a little more detailed and potentially more accurate than earlier sources.

The day after the election, you can read all the coverage in the newspapers.

Use a newspaper:

  • to find current information about international, national, and local events
  • to find editorials, commentaries, and expert, or popular opinions

Magazines...  weeks later
Information usually appears here a week to two weeks after an event. It will likely be more detailed than newspaper accounts.

Within the next couple of weeks, most of the weekly newsmagazines will also carry coverage of the election.

Use a magazine:

  • to find information or opinions about popular culture
  • to find up-to-date information about current events
  • to find general articles written for people who are not necessarily specialists in the topic area

Scholarly Journals...  months to years later
Research by the experts and analysis of an event usually appears here six months to a year after an event, both because of the time it takes scholars to do the work and because these publications appear less frequently, sometimes only four times a year.

Use a journal:

  • when doing scholarly research
  • to find out what has been studied on your topic
  • to find bibliographies that point to other relevant research

Books...  years later
Quality information usually takes a year to two years to appear in book form (not counting “unauthorized accounts”), because of the length of time required to research and write a work of this length, and because it takes quite a bit of time to publish.

It will take several months to years before political scientists study what happened in the election and write about it in scholarly journals and books.

Use a book:

  • when looking for a lot of information on a topic
  • to put your topic in context with other important issues
  • to find historical information
  • to find summaries of research to support an argument

Reference Books...  years later
Information usually takes quite a while to appear here, partly because these sources often wait for knowledge to become fairly well-established before acknowledging it, and partly because they’re only published once every several years.

It may take several years before the encyclopedia records the most recent Prime Minister of Canada.

Use a reference book:

  • when looking for background information on a topic
  • when trying to find key ideas, important dates or concepts