Getting relevant results: Improving your topic

Often when students are struggling with irrelevant research results it’s actually their topic that needs work. For most, their topics are either too broad or too narrow (see examples below).  There are a few things you can do, though, to help improve your topic.

Is your topic SMART?

  1. Specific – Is your topic too broad for the scope of your assignment (e.g. How can you be an ethical leader)? Too narrow (Steve Jobs and the ethical leadership of Apple)? Or just right (e.g. Is being ethical an essential quality of leadership)?
  2. Measurable – What will you be discussing or measuring throughout your paper? (In what ways is X affected by Y? How is X related to Y? What is the impact of X? How are X and Y related?)
  3. Attainable – Can you answer your research question within the limits of your paper? (e.g. You have 7-9 pages; at least 2 pages will be taken up by your introduction, background information, and conclusions. So you have 5-7 pages to actually answer your research question).
  4. Relevant – Is your topic related to the course? Does it meet the expectations of your professor? Are you interested in it?
  5. Timely – Can you answer the question, get all the research you need, and write the assignment before the due date? Also, is your topic too recent? Can there feasibly be academic research available on it?

Try turning your topic idea into a researchable question:

  1. Ask the 5W’s of your topic
    Who – what population are you talking about? (e.g. university students)
    What – what about that population? (that they’re stressed and don’t eat well as a result)
    Where – what geographical area are you focusing on? (e.g. Canada)
    When – what time period will you focus on? (e.g. last twenty years)
    Why – why does this topic matter? What does it have to do with your assignment/course?  (e.g. if you can’t answer all 5W’s you will need to do more background research first!
  2. Then ask yourself ‘How’?
    This is the “measurable” part of your SMART question (How are X and Y related; How does X influence Y)
    Asking the question HOW about your 5W’s can often help you develop a great research question!How does stress affect the eating habits of university students in Canada? (Note: I didn’t use “when” but that’s okay I think!)

And, just in case they’re helpful, here are some common types of research questions (Note: these ideas aren’t mine so please cite the original author, reference below)!

  • Definitions (While many people think X is a Y, can it better thought of as a Z?)
  • Evaluation (Can you argue that your person/activity/quality/thing is good, better or best (or bad, worse, or worst) compared to its peers?
  • Compare/contrast (Are there things/elements/people who are similar or dissimilar to the one you are thinking about?)
  • Explanation (Obvious causes of X; How Y would not have happened without X; Alternative causes to X than what is currently assumed)
  • Counter argument (Argue against what is currently assumed to be true)
  • Justification (Why does something matter?  Argue for something people haven’t previously considered that you think matters a great deal)

Source: Hacker, Diane. (2009). A Canadian writer’s reference, 4th ed. Boston: Bedford.

How can I get better search results in Google?

Many of the search techniques used  in traditional databases also work in Google.  I do not promise that I am a Google expert, but a few of the following tips may make your Googling more efficient.

Boolean Operators (see the blog post on Boolean Operators if you don’t know what these are).

  1. AND
    You don’t need to use “and” in your Google searches, as it’s inferred.  Normally we input regular language into Google, like:
    why do birds eat rocks?.
    Google interprets this as “why AND do AND birds AND eat AND rocks.”  So, if you’d like to search for two things, like birds and rocks, you can just type in “birds rocks.”  You may find results appear in a different order if you typed in “birds rocks” versus “birds AND rocks,” but theoretically the result lists should be the same.
  2. OR
    Google searches for synonyms automatically, too, so the “OR” function isn’t always necessary, depending on what you need.  If you want to search for one specific word or another, but not both, you can still use “OR” as an operator.  If you’re feeling lazy, you can also use the “|” symbol (although OR is only one more keystroke, so…).  This means your searches could look like:
    rocks OR stones
    rocks | stones
  3. -Not
    If you want to eliminate results from your list that aren’t what you need, use a hyphen or the negative sign (without punctuation after the “-“).  Google considers the word “not” a word, not an operator:
    birds -angry

Other Search Limits

  1. “Quotes”
    Use quotes to search for exact phrases (those exact words in that exact order).  So, if my first search was the title of something I was looking for, like a webpage, I would type in:
    “why do birds eat rocks”
    Quotes can also be used to find an exact word like (also see the +Exact discussion below):
  2. Wildcard/Fill in the Blanks*
    Note that this function works differently in Google than in other databases.  You can use Wildcard in Google to search for different words if you can’t remember exactly the thing you’re looking for.  Here is their explanation for how this works:  “If you include * within a query, it tells Google to try to treat the star as a placeholder for any unknown term(s) and then find the best matches.”  This is very helpful for finding movie quotes or song lyrics!  You can even use more than one asterisk in a search:
    Dr. Strangelove or: How I * to Stop Worrying and * the Bomb
    Wildcard only works for whole word substitution, not partial word like in traditional databases (i.e. Canad*)

Search Functions
(These are my favourites, although not always useful for academic searching!)

  1. site:
    If you want to search on a specific domain (i.e. within the Government of Canada websites), you can use the site: function.  This means that if I typed in the search below, Google would only search sites that end with birds
  2. Search specific part of site (like title, text, URL, etc)
    Like the site: function, you can tell Google to only search in specific areas of a website.  A warning that these searches only work with certain parts of a website, since different web designers will write their coding uniquely (nerd alert!).  But here are some that work  – don’t include a space after the colon):
    inurl: to search just in the
    allintext: to search in the body of a website
    allintitle: to search in the title of a website
  3. movie:
    Combine this function, a movie title, and your city name to get a list of show times and local theatres! Movie reviews are often included, too.
    movie:harry potter london ontario

Things I learned while preparing this blogpost (so thanks for asking this question HE 4411 and MOS 2296!)

  1. filetype:
    Isn’t this getting crazy? Look for specific file types by using this function:
  2. Num..range
    Google can search for a range of numbers.  An example from another blogpost I found gives date ranges as an example:
    best picture winners 2005..2009 (two periods, no spaces)

Google has many more functions, including all of its specialized search products (Google Books,  Scholar, Finance, Videos, Blogs and more).  I’ve only included the ones I thought you would use for academic purposes, or would find the most entertaining. Try Google Translate if you’re bored!  (Librarian in the Czech language is knihovník, did you know?)

How can I get fewer search results?

I’m often asked for help when students’ searches have too many results: this can be very overwhelming.  I have a few tips for avoiding or dealing with this problem, all of which I’ve dealt with in separate blog posts:

1. Presearch – make a plan before you start to research.  Get to know your topic, and think about what type of information you’re looking for.  Then think about where you can find that information: what type of resource is best for what you’re looking for? (Books, Journals?) If Summon doesn’t give you what you need, what database should you try?

2. Keywords – make a list of the words you’re going to try to search with.  Make a list of synonyms for these words, too.  And keep track of the ones you’ve tried in Summon or in different databases so you know which words work and which words don’t.

3. Use Boolean Operators – adding more concepts with “and”, especially when searching for journal articles, will help you reduce the number of results you get.  For example, searching just “diabetes” will get you way more results than searching “diabetes AND prevention AND diet”

4. Use Search Limits – you want to make your search results as perfect as you can.  There are tools to help you do this quickly!

As you’ve probably already discovered, research is time consuming.  But nothing is more frustrating than getting hundreds of sort-of helpful, but mostly useless results.  If you’re still stuck after trying the above, make sure to ask for help at the library desk!

Getting relevant results: search limits

It’s impossible to get the most out of your search results without combining keywords, Boolean Operators and search tips – make sure to read all three blog posts!

There are search limits that will help to make the process of searching a bit easier.  Please note that not all of these are used in every single database – I’ll just feature the most useful and popular ones here.  Before using them, though, make sure to check the “advanced search” page or the “search help” page of the database (or catalogue or Summon) you’re about to search.

  • Truncation*: putting an asterisk* on the end of a root word.  Doing so will retrieve all words that include the letters you put before the asterisk.Example: teach*
    This will find words like: teach, teacher, teachers, teaching, etc.
  • (Brackets): like BEDMAS, databases will search everything inside brackets before moving on to your next word.  They’re most helpful around “or” words, as it helps the computer search things more logically.
    • Examples: (I’ll use the keywords from the Keywords blog post)
      • (Russia OR Soviet Union OR USSR) AND (secret police OR NKVD OR People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs)
      • (diabetes OR diabetes mellitus OR type two diabetes) AND (nutrition OR diet OR food) and (benefi* OR advantages)
    • So, typing this into a database, the computer will first retrieve all the articles that contain the words diabetes, diabetes mellitus or type two diabetes, and then will sort through those articles to find the ones about diet, food and nutrition.  You’ll notice I put truncation on “benefi” as then I’ll retrieve benefit, benefits, beneficial, etc.
  • “Quotation marks”: in some databases (Google Scholar in particular) and in Summon, it’s helpful to put quotation marks around words that need to show up together, as a unit.  This is a helpful feature if you’re concerned about word order, or searching something with common words in it.
    • Example: “green tea” or “Mary Queen of Scots”
    • Not putting quotation marks around “green tea” tells Google Scholar to search “green and tea” which could bring up a whole bunch of irrelevant results.
  • NOT: Not is actually a Boolean operator, but I don’t tend to tell beginning researchers about it.  As you can probably guess, using “not” will exclude results, so it’s important to use it only when absolutely necessary.  If you’re not careful, you may exclude very helpful resources.
    • Example: One time I was searching for diabetes research in a database, and results on “killer whales” kept coming up.  This was not so helpful.
    • (Note: in regular Google, there is a “not” function.  Instead of writing the word not, but a minus sign next to the word you want to exclude.  For example: diabetes -killer whales).
  • Left to right: Databases search left to right, like we read.  This means it’s important for you to put your most unique words first (i.e. the words that will bring up the fewest, or most relevant results).
  • case sensitivity: Databases and library catalogues are usually not case-sensitive

Use these tips to get more relevant searches, whether you’re looking in Summon, the library catalogue, online databases, or even in Google!

Getting relevant results: Boolean operators

It’s impossible to get the most out of your search results without combining keywords, Boolean Operators and search tips – make sure to read all three blog posts!

Many databases require that you combine your keywords using Boolean operators (i.e. “AND” and “OR”) rather than just typing random words in like Google.

For this post, we’ll use the same example from the keywords blog post: I need to find information on the benefits of alternative treatments for type two diabetes (i.e. other than insulin). One of this alternative treatments is managing diabetes with your diet.

We use OR to combine the synonyms that we came up with (because we don’t care which word appears in the text). OR also broadens your search: use different OR words if you aren’t getting enough search results.

  • diabetes mellitus OR type two diabetes
  • diet OR nutrition therapy

We use AND to combine the different concepts from our topic. AND also narrows your search: use a few AND words if you’re getting too many results.

  • diabetes AND diet
  • diabetes mellitus AND nutrition therapy

Here’s an example of “and” using the library catalogue:

Boolean Operators 1

You can combine Boolean Operators too:

(diabetes mellitus OR type two diabetes) AND (diet OR nutrition therapy)

Boolean Operators 1

Knowing how Boolean Operators work is a helpful skill, whether you’re searching in academic databases, on government websites, or in the catalogue. Even Google uses them without you even knowing it!


Getting relevant results: keywords

It’s impossible to get the most out of your search results without combining keywords, Boolean Operators and search tips – make sure to read all three blog posts!

The words you use when searching for information really matter.  This is the case whether you’re looking for books, journals, or searching Google.  Remember: computers are dumb and are bad at mind reading.  You need to be very specific when you’re telling them what you need.

So, if you’re not getting the search results you want, try making a list of words relating to your topic (try to make them specific about what information you’re trying to find).  Then make a list of synonyms for those words:

History Example

I’m supposed to write an essay on the secret police in the Soviet Union.

So, my keywords could include: secret police, Soviet Union

Here are my synonyms for those words:

  • Soviet Union
    • Russia
    • USSR
    • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
  • Secret Police
    • NKVD
    • People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs

Foods and Nutrition Example
I need to find information on the benefits of alternative treatments for type two diabetes (i.e. other than insulin).

So, my keywords could include diabetes, alternative treatment, and benefits.

Here are my synonyms for those words:

  • type two diabetes
    • diabetes, type 2 (word order matters)
    • diabetes mellitus
  • alternative treatment
    • alternative treatments
    • alternative therapy/therapies (plurals matter)
    • diet (a form of alternative therapy)
    • nutrition
    • nutrition therapy
    • exercise
  • benefits
    • Common words like “benefits,” “advantages”, etc, often aren’t helpful as keywords as they appear in so many articles. Use with caution (or skip altogether!)

Now I have a whole range of words to try in online databases, in the library catalogue, etc.   Note that spelling (i.e. Canadian versus American), plurals, and word order matter!

If you need help coming up with your words, here are some places you can look:

  • Your textbook
  • Wikipedia (just for the keywords!)
  • Google (again, just for the keywords!)
  • An online encyclopedia

I advise you not to search for library material while coming up with your keywords – it can lead to frustration and wasted time!

Google Scholar: A Credible Database?

Over the last few years, the usefulness of Google Scholar has really improved.  I used it when updating a literature review recently (I’m cool, I know) and was pleased with how easy it was to use.  I did find credible resources during this process, too.

But, is it as credible as other databases?  Unfortunately it’s not that simple: Google Scholar’s purpose and function are just different from other databases.  Google Scholar intends to be a place for researchers to start.  As their “About” page says: Google Scholar provides a simple way to broadly search for scholarly literature.

The way Google Scholar indexes or collects its information is different from other databases, too.  “Scholarly” databases usually index articles on specific disciplines or  topics, with certain journals being included on purpose.  Basically, they’re created by people.  Google Scholar, like regular Google, is created by a computer: Google’s “robots” scan different webpages for scholarly material, with less care going into the journals that publish these articles.

What you’re probably looking for is a straight answer.  If I had to give you one, I’d say go ahead and use Google Scholar.  It can be helpful when you’re starting the research process on a topic, it finds credible journal articles, and it often turns up stuff you wouldn’t find elsewhere.  Make sure to use it, though, in combination with other subject-specific databases.

One more thing: if you’re wondering whether you should use Google Scholar over Summon, I would recommend sticking with Summon.  While Google Scholar has great benefits, Summon will only bring up articles that you have access to.  This means you won’t have to do as much poking around to find the full-text of articles as you would with Google Scholar.

For more information, I’ve put together a pros and cons list for Google Scholar.


  • Only credible, scholarly material is included in Google Scholar, according to the inclusion criteria: “content such as news or magazine articles, book reviews, and editorials is not appropriate for Google Scholar.”  Technical reports, conference presentations, and journal articles are included, as are links to Google Books.
  • This database is a citation index, meaning you can search the number of times an article has been cited by other people.  This is a function of many credible databases.
  • Google Scholar is interdisciplinary, meaning you are searching a huge range of topics all at once.  You get different search results this way than you’d find in traditional databases, as a result.
  • You can find A LOT more material using Google Scholar than some other databases (not all).
  • It’s easy to use because it’s familiar.


  • It rarely finds all of the reliable material that “scholarly” databases do, and it sometimes misses really important articles: studies comparing Google Scholar with PsycINFO, PubMed, Web of Science, Scopus, and more found that Google Scholar was unable to produce all of the articles listed in the scholarly databases.  This means you can’t rely on Google Scholar alone.
  • Computer errors are more common with Google Scholar because it isn’t maintained by people: broken links, repetitive results, and other issues are more likely with this database than others.
  • It still says “beta” even though it’s been on the market for years.  This is odd, and potentially indicates that Google Inc. realizes there are problems with the product.
  • It may not offer any more benefits than Summon does, through Brescia and Western Libraries.

Sources: Google Scholar Bibliography.