When doing research, it pays to plan ahead. If you take some time to really think about your topic and how you're going to look for sources, you can save yourself hours in the long run. A well thought out research plan will help you find relevant books, ebooks, journal articles, encyclopedia articles, dictionary entries and more much more easily than if you just jumped right in to a database and hoped for the best. It's an easy and helpful way to organize your thinking about a topic, which will help you find what you need.
To help you with creating your research plan, we've set out the following steps:
Start by writing out your topic, either on a piece of paper or in a notebook or typed out on your computer. Writing out your topic will help you visualize the parts of your topic, which will be helpful as you build your research plan.
For example, let's say our topic is:
When did the monastic tradition first become popular in Europe?
Write your topic out like we have here and take a moment to think about the topic and what it is really asking. If what you write out the first time turns out to not be the question you want to ask, try writing it down again with a different wording. Keep doing this until you're confident you've captured the topic you really want to explore.
Next, take a look at your topic and try to identify what we call its core concepts. The core concepts of a topic are the words that represent the major ideas that you'll explore with your topic.
Think of it this way: what would be the words in your topic that you would absolutely need to be able to identify your topic? Any words that you absolutely need are your core concepts. Any other words are just there to help contextualize those concepts in a sentence.
When identifying core concepts, it can help to circle or highlight them in your topic sentence. For our example, that would look like this:
When did the monastic tradition first become popular in Europe?
Here, we've highlighted monastic and Europe. These are the two major ideas that we'll be looking at with this topic: the monastic tradition and its history in Europe. They are the "what" and the "where" of your topic. All of the other words in your sentence simply relate to these two core concepts and help contextualize them in a sentence. Those words are helpful when you're trying to express a topic to someone else, but, when you're searching for sources using a computer, all you need are the essential, core concepts.
Next, you need to think of synonyms for your core concepts, or other ways that you might express those words. This is critically important when you're doing any type of computer-based searching.
Different people will express the same idea different ways using different words, yet everyone can still get their point across. For example, while you might call a bicycle a "bike" or a "velocipede" (no, really, it's a real word), you're still able to understand that all of those words refer to "a vehicle having two wheels held one behind the other in a frame, typically propelled by a seated rider using pedals, and steered by means of handlebars at the front" (OED Online).
However, computers aren't very good at making those kinds of connections. For the most part, they will only search for the specific word you give them. For example, if you type "bike" into a database search box, you'll only find sources that use the word "bike". You won't find the sources that use "bicycle" even if those sources are appropriate to your topic. By finding and using different synonyms for your core concepts in your search, you increase your chances for finding more material on your topic.
Here's what it would look like to find the synonyms for the two core concepts in our example:
Monastic: monk, monks, monastary, monastaries
Europe: European, Western World, specific countries
Now you have all these different words to express your core concepts, which is great. But it will be a real pain to type out five or six different ways to say the same word each time you do a search, right? Well, you're in luck! There is a technique called "truncation" that will save you time and effort when performing searches.
To use truncation, start by identifying the common "root" for your synonyms. This is the word, or even just part of a word , that many of your synonyms have in common. For example, from the synonyms we found above:
monk, monks = monk
monastary, monastaries, monastic = monast
Europe, European = Europe
"Monastary," "monastariees" and "monastic" in the above list all share the same root word of "monast." Everything that comes after the "t", at least when it comes to database searching, is just a matter of variations in spelling.
In some case, a word just won't have a "root", or maybe that "root" is actually the entire word. For example, the word "youth" can't be shortened to a root word, because you would lose the meaning of the word. There's just no other way to say "youth" that means a teenager. While "Youthful," shares the same root with "Youth", it doesn't mean quite the same thing.
Once you've identified your root words, you can apply what is called the truncation symbol, which is a special character that computers recoqnize as telling them "find me any word that starts with this root, no matter what the ending." By applying this special symbol, you can type just the root word into a database and it will retrieve all the variations in spelling for that word, doing some of your work for you. Most of the time, the truncation symbol is a "*", although it can sometimes be a "$" or a "?". Most databases will tell you which symbol to use.
For our example words, the roots with their truncation symbols would look like this:
Now that you have your list of truncated terms, it's time to put them all together into a search phrase. To do this, you'll need to use two techniques: Boolean operators and nesting.
Boolean operators are three words that computers identify as having special functions when searching. These words are:
Nesting is the technique of using multiple search boxes to control the way a search is run. By combining multiple search boxes together, you force the computer to do a series of mini-searches and combine the results of those mini-searches to create the results for your final search. It's similar to brackets in a mathematical equation. To solve an equation with brackets, you have to do the calculations inside of the bracket before you can complete what is outside the bracket. Nesting is asking the computer to do the same thing with your search.
If we apply Boolean operators and nesting to our example list of truncated terms, we'll get something that looks like this:
monk* OR monast* and Europe*
In the above example, we've used "or" to combine "mok*" and "monast*" in one search box (represented here by a black rectangle). We could have "or" again to combine "Europe*" with other synonyms, like the names of specific countries, in a second search box, but we left is as it. When entered into a database, this creates two mini-searches, one that will find any result that uses any of the different ways to say "monastic," and one that will find any result that uses any of the different ways to say "European." Finally, we combine the two boxes with an "and," so that the final search will find any result that makes reference to at least one of the ways to say "monastic" and at least one of the ways to say "European." By doing all of this, you've maximized you chances at getting a large set of on-topic sources to work with.