Research Strategies

As you search for sources on your topic, it’s important to make a plan for that research process. You should develop a research strategy that fits within your assignment expectations and considers your source requirements. Your research strategy should be based on the research requirements your professor provides. Some formal research essays should include peer reviewed journal articles only; however, there are some research papers that may allow you to use a wider variety of sources, including sources from the World Wide Web.

If your professor has not established research requirements for your assignment, it’s a good idea to ask. Although general internet searching is great for generating ideas, you may not be able to use internet sources for all research projects.

Database Searching

Databases can help you to identify and secure information across a range of subjects. Such information might include a chapter in a book, an article in a journal, a report, or a government document. Databases are a researcher’s best friend, but it can take a little time to get used to searching for sources in your library’s databases. Be prepared to spend some time getting comfortable with the databases you’re working in, and be prepared to ask questions of your professor and librarians if you feel stuck.

Becoming adept at searching online databases will give you the confidence and skills you need to gather the best sources for your project.

Your online college library can help you learn how to select search terms and understand which database would be the most appropriate for your project. College libraries will require login information from students in order to access database resources.

Internet Searching

Web research can be an important part of your research process. However, be careful that you use only the highest quality sources that are returned on your general web search. Your paper is only as good as the sources you use within it, so if you use sources which are not written by experts in their field, you may be including misinformed or incorrect information in your paper.

As a general rule, one site to avoid is Wikipedia, which is not considered a quality source for academic writing. While this site is fine for looking up information in a casual way and gaining a better understanding of a subject, it is not recommended for academic writing since information can sometimes be incorrect since the content is user-generated, rather than peer reviewed and written by experts; peer reviewed and works written by experts can be found in academic journals, news articles, magazines, or published books. It is also considered more of a “general knowledge” source, and academic writing favors sources with more specific information.

Still, when you are researching on the web, search engines are effective tools for locating web pages relevant to your research, and they can save you time and frustration. However, for searches to yield the best results, you need a strategy and some basic knowledge of how search engines work. Without a clear search strategy, using a search engine is like wandering aimlessly in a field of corn looking for the perfect ear.


Following are the most popular and productive ways to search the internet or a database. Before you begin your search, identify the main ideas in your topic and determine any alternate spellings, synonyms, or variant word forms for the ideas.

Next, try one of these search strategies.

NOTE: Techniques vary from browser to browser and database to database. Each platform has its own protocols; however, these are all helpful techniques on the right platform.

Notable Tips

Capitalizations normally do not affect the search. (Exceptions: AND and OR)

Example: London England will be treated the same as london england.

Filler words or stop words (the, a, an) are unnecessary and can be left out.

  1. FIND: use the "find" command when searching within a document for the location of your keyword(s). To use this command, press Ctrl (or on a Mac, Command) and F buttons at the same time. The find bar could be in different locations on the screen depending on the browser being used. Note:  This technique can be used in many types of files including PDF files, Word documents, and more.

  2. PLACEMENT: if you're using a string of words, put your most important keywords first. For example, yankees world series year.

  3. OR: Using the OR operator expands the search results. OR must be typed with all capital letters. It is often used with synonyms. For example, composition OR writing will return any result that contains either word. In the Venn diagram to the right, all areas will be included in the search results.
  4. AND: Using the AND operator narrows the search results. AND must be typed with all capital letters. 

    For example, stress AND mindfulness will only return results that contain both stress and mindfulness. In the diagram to the right, the only results that will be returned will be in the purple section where the circles overlap.

    Note: Some browsers (including Google and Bing) use AND automatically for simple searches and does not need to be used in those instances.

  5. DOUBLE QUOTATION MARKS ( " " ): If you want to search for words exactly in the order they are in a phrase, use double quotation marks (" ") around that phrase. This is especially helpful in situations where you want the words to be treated as one entity such as "coping strategies" or "instructional technologist." In this example, see you later alligator will return only pages with words in exactly that order.

    This technique is also useful when you are looking for a particular spelling of a word. For example an unusually spelled word, name, or city. Examples: "colour," "grey," "Theatre," "Stephenie," or "Pau" (a city in France)

  6. MINUS ( - ): By placing a minus sign (-) in front of your search words, you can exclude these words from search results. Do put a space before the sign. Do not put a space between the sign and the keyword. This search (writing -composition) will return pages that include the word writing but not the word composition.

  7. PLUS ( + ):  by placing (+) in front of your search words, you can include these words in search results. Do put a space before the sign. Do not put a space between the sigh and the keyword. 

    NOTE: Google does not recognize using the plus sign as an operator in a search.

  8. NESTING: To combine more than one search phrase into one statement, put these phrases in parentheses. If you were to use a database to complete the search, use the "Advanced Search" option. When putting items on one line, the search will treat that as if there were parenthesis around it.

  9. COMBINING: Combining two or more strategies can be very effective. For example, combine phrases with keywords, using the double quotes, parenthesis, and the minus (-) sign.Example: ("instructional design" OR "learning experience design") degree -certificate

  10. TRUNCATION: By truncating a word, or using its stem, you can dins results across wrd forms and spelling variations. To do this kind of search, add the truncation symbol, an asterisk (*), at the end of the stem. 

    For example, operat* will find operation, operating, and operator.

  11. WILDCARD (*): In Google, the asterisk is used differently. Use an asterisk in place of an unknown word. An * a day keeps the * away will bring back results including an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

  12. DOMAIN:  If you know the domain of the site you are searching for, or want results from only a particular kind of site, you can limit your search to one of the domains on the right. For example, domain:edu wordsworth poetry limits your search to educational sites dealing with Wordsworth and poetry.
    • com - commercial business site
    • edu - U.S. educational site
    • gov - U.S. government / non-military site
    • mil - U.S. military site or agency
    • net - network, internet service provider, organization org - U.S. non-profit organization

  13. SITE: If you know you would like results from a particular site, you can limit your results with the site search. thesis will bring back content about thesis, but only from

  14. INTEXT: You can narrow your search down even more with an intext search. This type of search requires that what comes after directly after intext (no space after the colon) will be found somewhere on every page within the search results.

Example: intext:writing intext:thesis
This example will find results from the Excelsior OWL with the words writing and thesis on the page.

See It in Practice