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Planning your search

A guide to the steps involved in planning an effective search for information.

Understanding your topic

Before you start a thorough search for information to inform your assignment or research study, you should first ensure you have enough background information about your topic:

  • Reference sources: Consult print or online reference material, such as subject dictionaries or encyclopaedias.
  • Books: Textbooks and monographs in your subject area can be useful sources of background information. Search Explore, UCL's library catalogue, for print and electronic books. Browsing relevant book material can help to get a more thorough and detailed understanding of a topic.
  • Journal articles: For finding current research on specific subjects, journal articles can reflect recent scholarly activity, as well as past research in specialised subject areas. Articles can also be found through Explore and through databases, some of which are subject-specific, with powerful search functionality to ensure your search is thorough, focused and relevant.
  • Web searches: Be very cautious about using information you find using a simple web search. Sites such as Wikipedia can be altered by anyone. Evaluate your sources to decide if they are reliable and valid. You may wish to check with your tutor whether it is acceptable to cite them in your academic work.

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It may be helpful to do a scoping search to understand your topic further and get an understanding of the nature and extent of existing literature on that topic. This is particularly important when carrying out independent research as it can help you identify gaps in existing research, which may then help you formulate and finalise your research question.

Once you understand the topic, you can start to explore your search question in more detail and define your search terms.