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Scientific Information Retrieval

Finding Search Terms

Defining a Topic

Before you start to search for information, it is essential to think out what you actually want to find. Taking time to plan your search will improve the accuracy of your search and the quality of the information you find. You can first gather some information about your topic, for example read some articles and browse encyclopaedias and thesauri. It’s also useful to check what aspects of the topic have been studied before.

When defining your topic and information needs, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the focus of your research?
  • What is your point of view of the topic?
  • What do you already know about the topic?
  • What is relevant to your topic?
  • Do you need methodological, theoretical or statistical information?
  • Do you need some text material for analyzing?

Deciding Search Terms

After having defined your topic you have to start thinking of suitable search terms. That is often the most difficult part of the whole search process.

Start by breaking the topic into component concepts that will form the basis for the actual keywords used in the search statement. Write down all the central concepts of the topic. Consider also adding concepts and ideas that are associated with the central concepts.

This is one example of component concepts of the topic "Computer-aided game design".

  • central concepts: computer, games, design
  • added concepts: design patterns, computer-aided design, players, video games, programming, computer graphics

Synonyms and related terms

Mostly you have to think also of alternative terms, terms that you think might be used in articles concerning these concepts. They may be synonyms, abbreviations, acronyms, related terms, opposite terms and terms in different languages. Try to find broader and narrower terms also.

Thesaurus terms

In addition to synonyms and related terms, you should also check terms in the thesaurus or subject index of the database you are searching in. You will get more relevant results using thesaurus terms (subject terms) and limiting your search to the descriptor field because databases usually use thesaurus terms or subject headings in describing the contents of documents.

Most databases have their own thesaurus or subject index. For example, ProQuest databases contain Eric Thesaurus, Sociological Indexing Terms, Political Science Indexing Terms, ARTbibliographies Modern Thesaurus. EbscoHost databases have their own subject index. Most other databases of e-journals do not contain thesauri. When there is a thesaurus in the database, that you are using, you should always check your search terms from this thesaurus, because the subject term for the same object might differ significantly between different thesauri. When using thesaurus terms in your search, the terms have to be written exactly in the form they appear in the thesaurus.


When planning your search terms you can use also dictionaries to find the correct English equivalent of a word. There are various dictionaries available at LUC-Finna.