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Research Skills Tutorial

What Concepts Define Your Topic?

As mentioned in the previous section, databases do not understand natural language. They can only match strings of characters that you type in the search field, to strings of characters that indexed in their contents (e.g., title, author, phrases found in the full text of articles or abstracts)

Since library databases depend on precise search phrases to yield precise results, it helps to think of your topic in terms of the key concepts that define it. 

In order to narrow down your topic, you add concepts to it to make it more specific. Here, we break those concepts apart so that we can recombine them in a way the databases can understand.

  • Geometry in the Egyptian pyramids = geometry + Egyptian pyramids
  • Preventable emergency room fatalities = emergency rooms + fatalities + preventable
  • Impact of Zebra mussels in the Hudson River on native mussel populations = zebra mussels + Hudson River + native mussels + ecology/population.

The divisions will not always be clean. Is "preventable fatalities" one concept or two? How about "Egyptian pyramids"? Once you start trying to think of synonyms and related terms, this will become clearer to you. 

Synonyms & Related Terms

Again, databases can only match strings of characters that you input with strings of characters in their contents. So if you enter fatalities, articles that use the word deaths instead may not appear in your search results. You could design a Boolean search to include fatalities and deaths to retrieve results using both concepts. 

Brainstorming synonyms and related terms can help. 

Concept Chart

To create a Concept Chart, use one column for each of the concepts you identified in your topic. Beneath each concept, add all the synonyms and related terms you brainstormed, as below.

Concept Chart for "effects of anti-bullying programs on the self-esteem of adolescent girls"

Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
anti-bullying programs adolescent girls self esteem
Stand Up - Speak Out teen girls self image
Bullying: Ignorance Is No Defense teenaged girls self worth
Olweus female adolescents  
No Bully female teenagers  
Boomerang Project female teens  


Notice there are different ways to think of synonyms and related terms:

  • actual synonyms and near synonyms, like girl and female
  • related but not exactly the same ideas like self esteem and self-image
  • specific examples like Olweus, which is one anti-bullying program

You may not be sure of the best combination of search terms until you have tried them all. Ambiguity and uncertainty are normal (and can even be good). Research, particularly searching, usually involves trial and error.

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