Preliminary searching in more detail


Initial or preliminary searching helps to establish a basis for later specific or more comprehensive searching. Preliminary searching can help clarify the topic and supply basic knowledge upon which to develop an improved searching focus. It can help to refine your research question, find synonyms and to become clearer on the direction of your research. In addition, preliminary searching will assist identification of the key terminology in your field for the constructs you are interested in exploring. It is important to determine and use the terminology that experts in your field use, consider how the database thesaurus treat the terms in your research question - are there relevant subject headings? Remember, recognisability is about whether you can identify the terms in your question in the literature. Refer back to the property of recognisability for clarification. For preliminary searching, use general or broad search tools such as Library Search and Google Scholar.

Finding synonyms

Before starting to search, spend some time formulating the key concepts of your research question, identifying synonyms for the words and phrases, and defining them within the theoretical framework of your topic. Explore the meaning of terms using a dictionary and find synonyms with a thesaurus.

Searching subject headings

Subject headings are a set of terms and phrases, from a controlled vocabulary that are used to describe the content of books and articles and are assigned by cataloguers and indexers. Subject headings take some of the guess work out of searching, saves time and help make searching more effective and efficient and in many cases more directed. There are many different ways to describe the same term, a subject heading brings these terms together under a single word or phrase. Look to see whether the database you are searching has a thesaurus to browse for the subjects that match your topic/word/phrase.

Note that the term thesaurus, subject headings, descriptors, index terms and medical subject headings (MeSH) are interchangeable, meaning the same thing - a controlled vocabulary that categorises and defines terms and phrases.

Using Library Search, complete the activity below.

Activity – Library Search

Go to the QUT Library homepage and start searching, using Library Search.

  1. Enter words from your research question and click the search icon.
  2. Skim results; evaluate titles, citations and abstracts.
  3. From the most relevant results, use alternative terms to refine your search. Repeat until your result improves.
  4. On the left of the result screen, use the options under 'filter your results' to further refine your search.

Library Search tips:

  • Use double-quotation marks to search for words that go together, e.g. "teacher education".
  • Refine your search to articles from peer-reviewed publications.
  • Search using a seminal author last name with a topic word.
  • Filter by format, study area, or date range.
  • Click Save Query
Advantages to using Library Search But keep in mind

Useful for preliminary searching as a starting point to identifying key terminology.

Library Search combines results from the physical collection, eBook collection, many databases and QUT ePrints.

Searching is fast, easy, and uses a familiar interface.

Search results include citations of many kinds of sources: books, journal articles, newspaper articles, conference proceedings, dissertations, photos, multimedia, and much more.

Not appropriate for comprehensive searches - use subject-specific databases instead.

Vague or short searches will return too many results; searches using well-refined search terms or phrases in quotes will return fewer, more refined results.

Be aware that Library Search doesn't provide access to all scholarly material available at QUT.

Search mechanism is less sophisticated than those available within individual database platforms.