ME 491/492/493 BSME Senior Capstone Sequence: Beginning Your Research

Moving from a Research Question to a Search Strategy in 4 Steps

Moving from a research question to an effective search strategy involves breaking down the question into its Core Concepts, brainstorming Keywords, and then constructing an effective Search Strategy. You can do this in 4 steps.

1. Articulate your research question

Is union representation good for public employees in Oregon?

2. Break down your research question into its core concepts.

  • Union Representation
  • Public Employees
  • Oregon

3. Now list alternative ways of describing these concepts.

Your list can include broader, narrower, and related concepts.

Core Concept Brainstorm
Union Representation: Collective Bargaining labor union labor dispute SEIU
Public Employees: workers state worker employee staff
Oregon: Pacific Northwest Washington United States Portland

4. Create multiple search strategies by combining words from your concept brainstorm list.

  • Union AND employee AND portland
  • (Labor Union OR collective bargaining) AND state work* AND oregon
  • Etc.


  • Use truncation (an * at the root of a word to find different word forms. For example, librar* will find libraries, librarian, librarians, etc. 
  • Use parentheses and the OR operator to "nest" your search--different terms/phrases that represent the same concept.
  • Use quotation marks for phrase searching.
  • Use Boolean operators to connect search terms:
    • OR -- finds results with either or both terms -- it is used to broaden your search.
    • AND -- finds results with both terms -- it is used to narrow your search.

Acknowledgement: The content in this box was based off of Mandy Swygart-Hobaugh's work at Georgia State University Library.

Scholarly, Professional, Popular?

When you have a research assignment , note what types of articles are required evidence for your thesis or question. Some professors require you to use only scholarly peer-reviewed journals while others might allow professional or trade journals and newspapers.

Scholarly article - Peer-reviewed or scholarly articles are written by an expert or scholar in the field and reviewed by peers who are experts in the same subject.

Professional/trade article - Trade or professional journals have articles written by experts in the field or by staff writers. The articles are reviewed by the editor. The articlesusually do not include reference lists.

Popular journals - Popular journals or magazines are written for a general audience rather than for professionals or scholars. Examples include the New Yorker, National Geographic, and the Rolling Stone.

Too Few Search Results

Try a  database for your topic . Try searching in a  database that specializes in a certain subject like education or psychology. You might want to use a multidisciplinary database like Academic Search Premier or even Google Scholar. Be persistent and try several different databases.

Brainstorm search terms or keywords. Change the terms you use in your search. Brainstorming for keywords is helpful. By using a different term or synonym, you will retrieve a different results list.

Using too many search terms. Each time you put in another search term with AND, you will retrieve fewer results. Start with a more general search with a few keywords, then add more terms or try different terms. 

Using too many limiters. Limiters (such as date and format) retrieve a more targeted results list, but overuse of limiters can end up with zero results. 

A topic that is too narrow. You may need to think more broadly about your topic. For example, if you are researching the impact of "Basque terrorism" on a specific town in Spain, broaden your search to just look at "Basque terrorism".  Also, you may need to break your topic down and search for different parts separately; for example, "Basque separatist movement" and  another search, the demographics of the Spanish town.


Too Many Search Results

Using the right search terms. Try changing the terms or keywords. Think of terms that are more specific. Make sure you are not using OR between terms that mean different things, for example women OR salary.

Using too few search terms. Each time you put in another search term with AND, you will retrieve fewer results. Start with a small number of keywords then add more terms or try different terms based on your results. 

Not Using limiters. Limiters, such as date and format, provide a more targeted results list. Look for the limiters in each database that meet your criteria.

Noting the default search options. By default, most databases search in the title, author field, abstract and subject terms associated with the article. Experiment with searching in just the title or in another field for targeted results.

A topic that is too broad. Think about a more focused aspect of your topic or the various angles of your topic, then make each perspective a separate search.