Once you have developed a research question, you can identify the main concepts you will use in your search query. Those concepts are usually the nouns or nominal phrases in your research question; words that do not help the search should not be considered (i.e., exclude adjectives, prepositions, adverbs, and usually verbs). It is also best to not have synonymous main concepts. Below is an example of a research question and the related search concepts.
Research question: How do Karl Rahner’s thoughts on the unity of the Church relate to modern ecumenical challenges stemming from racism and white privilege?
Search concepts: Karl Rahner, "unity of the church," and racism.
In the example above, “white privilege” is a similar concept to “racism,” and because “racism” is slightly broader in meaning, it is preferable as a main/key concept. “Modern ecumenical challenges” might be a possible fourth key concept, but it is also possible that the two concepts, “unity of the Church” and “racism,” will be enough to retrieve sources related to ecumenism. Since including an additional key concept might prematurely narrow your search results, it is better not to include a concept for “modern ecumenical challenges” at the outset. Starting with a broader set of search results and then whittling it down to a smaller set is often the best approach to making sure you get the most appropriate sources for your topic.
Once you have identified your key concepts, you can begin brainstorming the terms you will use in your search query. To do this step, you want to think critically about what synonyms or related terms scholars might use to describe those concepts, and then come up with a list of keywords and subject headings you can search.
What is a "keyword"?
When you search by "keyword," you are usually searching using a word or phrase in natural language, and seeking to match a term either in the full text or the bibliographic record for a resource in a database. They are best used when a subject heading for a concept does not exist or is not precise enough, and also when searching for information on recent events or developments (for which no subject heading yet exists). They may be searched using wildcard and truncation operators.
What is a "subject heading"?
A subject heading is a term developed by the editors of a database that is used to group sources together that are on similar topics. They are consistently applied to describe sources to help researchers obtain relevant search results. Sometimes these terms are not intuitive, and may need to be looked up in a thesaurus. Depending on how the search engine for a database functions, you may want to search by subject heading using the subject field.
Once you have developed a set of search terms you are ready to use, you can construct your search query. When searching databases, you will likely need to use Boolean operators to structure your searches. For more information on Boolean searching, see the video tutorial on Using Advanced Search to Find Resources in Theology in this guide. Though this tutorial was developed specifically for searching the BC libraries' catalog, Boolean operators function consistently across library databases.
When constructing searches, a search strategy worksheet can be helpful to organize your thoughts. Here is an example of one that has been completed. The general instructions for completing this worksheet and searching EBSCO databases are as follows:
1. Enter your key concepts at the top of each column (add more columns, if needed).
2. Enter the synonyms or related terms for those key concepts into the column below.
3. Enclose all terms within a column in parentheses and separate them using the "OR" Boolean operator. Each one of these parenthetical search expressions will represent a key concept. Use double quotes around any keywords or subject headings that are phrases.
4. Join parenthetical search expressions with the "AND" Boolean operator.
5. Enter the entire expression into a search box, and leave the field drop-down menu set to the default setting. Click on the search button and examine your results.
The query in the example search strategy worksheet would be: ("virtue ethics" OR humility OR temperance OR virtue) AND (environment* OR "climate change" OR ecolog*) AND (Catholic* OR Christian*)
Sometimes it can be helpful to combine the search results of more than one search, particularly when you want to see the overlapping set of results between two or more searches.
The EBSCO database "search history" feature can be used to combine search sets. (Commonly used EBSCO databases include the Atla Religion Database, New Testament Abstracts, Old Testament Abstracts, and the Philosopher's Index with Full Text.) Here is a video tutorial on how to use this feature:
You can also find a similar search functionality on the ProQuest interface, using its 'recent searches" option. For details on how to use this feature, see this step-by-step procedure.