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 how does Durkheim's concept of social solidarity explain the family?) you don't need to go through all the steps- just start at finding subject headings.

The example I'm going to use is "Does participating in retirement home activities improve the 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 word, find the most often used subject headings for that concept.

Use the following steps:
  1. Put in your first keyword and click search but ignore the actual articles while we complete the process. In our example, I 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 clicking on subject (remember to expand the available list of subject headings by choosing "more"). This tells me that the word most indexers use in sociology is "aged", and secondly it's "aging".
  4. In the column below the keyword, write the words which are synonyms for the concept you looked for, and which are subject headings in the order they appear on the subject list.
  5. Using the word that appeared at the top of your list "aged" (because it's the most frequently used subject heading), click on "modify search" at the top of the screen, 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 word "aged", but only in the subject headings field.

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 included your word.

Now use the same method for the second concept:
  1. Leaving the first box with your first word in it, 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, then select subject in the left hand column and then click "more".
  3. In the second column below the keyword, write down the words which are synonyms for your second concept, and which appear under the heading subjects. You don't necessarily need to write down any more synonyms for the first concept - you've already got that covered.
  4. Again, choose the most frequently used word for the second concept, click on "modify search" and enter that word into the second search box. Then select "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 419,000 articles even if they are ABOUT the aged (step 1) because it'll take too long. Adding step 2 gets us down to 1,437 peer-reviewed articles but step 3 refines our search even further and has 195 good results.

Now I try to get down to between 50 and 30 articles, so in this case I might pick another word from step 3 (probably well being) which brings us down to 31 articles that are exactly on what I'm looking for. Sometimes only finding 2 words gets you what you need, sometimes it takes 5 steps.

I don't actually look at the articles until my searching process gives me a reasonable number of articles (between 50 and 30, or thereabouts), because there's just no point. Even 195 articles is too much- keep going.

Because our search is specifically targeting topics (not just words), if we don't find what we want immediately, we still have a good list of synonyms to try. Getting good articles is not based on luck, but on trying different combinations of 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:

aged

aging

elderly

older people

aged, 80 and over

elderly people

leisure activities

leisure time

participation

quality of life

well being

life satisfaction

Many 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!