How to "Anne Kelly" your search

Course #: SY

Many students have come in to see me to find out how to get to really good articles on a wide variety of topics. I've devised a method that works, so I'd like to share it with you. This kind of searching works best on broader topics in the social sciences and psychology, as per the example below. If you have a specific topic (such as what does Durkheim's concept of social solidarity explain the family?) you don't need to go through all the steps.

The example I'm going to use is "Does participating in retirement home activities improve quality of life for seniors?".

Finding the right wording is the key to finding great articles on your topic.

I start with a sheet of paper with three columns marked on it and try and find one or two words to describe each conceptual part of what I'm looking for. Then, I go to the research database suggested on the Subject Guide page, in this case "Sociology at ProQuest".

This process may seem long and involved but it WORKS to help you find really good articles on whatever your topic might be.

Pare down your topic to as few words as possible without losing the idea.

The idea here is to get down to the bare bones concepts and then use the literature to find good subject headings to use to locate articles on your topic. I write a keyword(s) at the top of each column that identifies what I want to study or read about. Each column separates out distinct parts of your question.

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 (often a verb)
Keywords: seniors participating in activities quality of life
Subject headings:

From your keyword(s), find the most often used subject headings.

Use the following steps to find good subject headings for your concept:
  1. Put in your first keyword and click search but ignore the actual articles while we complete the process. I can type in my keyword "seniors" and click search.
  2. Narrow by selecting scholarly journals (because that's where you will find subject headings more often than say, newspapers).
  3. Narrow again by selecting the plus sign next to the category "subject" (remember to expand the available subject headings by choosing "more options"). This tells me that the word most indexers use in sociology is "elderly", and secondly it's "senior citizens".
  4. In the column below the keyword, write the words which are synonyms for the concept you looked for, and which appear under "subject heading" in the order they appear on the subject list.
  5. Using the word that appeared at the top of your list "elderly" (it's the most frequently used subject heading), click on "modify search" to go back to the search screen, and enter that word into the first search box (this will replace the word you used). Then choose "Subject heading" from the drop down menu box to the right of the first word. So now, I am looking for the term elderly in the subject headings

This search is completely different from the search you did above in step 1- now you are finding articles ABOUT your topic, not just those that include the same word you used.

Now use the same method for the second concept:
  1. Type your second keyword in the second empty box and click search but again, ignore the actual articles while we complete the same process as above.
  2. Again, narrow by selecting scholarly journals.
  3. Narrow again by selecting the plus sign next to the category "subject".
  4. In the second column below the keyword, write the words which are synonyms for the concept you looked for, and which appear under "subject heading". You already have the first one pinned down so you don't necessarily need to write down any more synonyms for the first concept.
  5. Again, using the word that appeared at the top of this synonym list, click on "modify search" and enter that word into the second search box. Then choose "Subject heading" from the drop down menu box to the right of the word.

Now your search has two subject headings specified and you will see that your results are getting better with each step of this process.

And use the same method for the third concept (if you have a third):
  1. Type your third keyword in the third empty box and click search. If there's no box there, click "Add a Row" to get one.
  2. Again, narrow by selecting scholarly journals.
  3. Narrow again to the category "subject".
  4. In the third column below the keyword, write the words which are synonyms for the third concept you are looking for, and which appear under "subject heading".
  5. Now using any word that you think will work best, click on "modify search" and enter that word into the third search box. Then choose "Subject heading" from the drop down menu box to the right of the word.
  6. By clicking Search, choosing scholarly and selecting peer-reviewed too, you should have a really good list of articles on your specific topic. Now I look at the actual articles because looking earlier just wasn't useful.

Why this works

There's no point searching through 28,000 articles even if they are ABOUT the elderly (step 1) because it'll take too long. Adding step 2 gets us down to 70 peer-reviewed articles but step 3 refines our search even further and has 7 good results.

Because our search is specifically targeting three topics (not just three keywords) and if we don't find what we want immediately, we have a good list of synonyms to try. Getting good articles is not based on luck, but on trying different synonyms until you get what you are looking for.

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 (often a verb)
Keywords: seniors participating in activities quality of life
Subject headings:

elderly

aging

aged

senior citizens

old people

recreation

leisure

activities

participation

quality of life

well being

life satisfaction

Most subjects can be searched this way, and each time you do "the process" your search becomes a bit more specific and better. Waiting until you get all three topics refined is the fastest and best way to be sure you are getting the best results from your searching strategy.

Please don't hesitate to contact me so I can show you how this works in person!