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Advanced Information Research Skills


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.

Preliminary searching will also help you identify the key terminology in your field for your chosen topic. It is important to determine and use the terminology that experts in your field use. Remember, recognisability is about whether the terms in your question can be matched with results in the literature. For preliminary searching, use general or broad search tools such as FiNDit and Google Scholar.

Preliminary searching - more detail

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.

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, and 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.

Click the thumbnail below to see an example of a database record containing subject headings underneath the journal article title.

Examining theses in your discipline is good practice and is recommended early in your candidature.

This strategy will assist in thinking about how to structure and format our thesis, the originality of your idea or question, and provide a source of rich bibliographies. Think about theses in terms of local, national and international content. Most universities, in many countries and some regions have open access repositories for theses, research publications, and sometimes datasets for researchers. There are a number of tools available from ND Library and the web for finding theses in your research area. See the Library’s Grey Literature guide for more detail:

Scanning the latest issues of certain journals is a valuable strategy to: 

  • gain an understanding of the research being done around your topic 
  • help you reflect on the scope and direction of your research 
  • identify the current trends in a discipline 
  • to ensure you find valuable information that might be overlooked in a database search. 

After searching journal databases and identifying the best articles for your topic it may become apparent that the most relevant articles are consistently found in a handful of journals. Find out which journals are specific to your topic area: 

  • recommendations from your supervisor
  • search using your key concepts in FiNDit with results limited by relevant journal format and subject terms to evaluate for best sources
  • select high quality journals by subject area journals using Journal Guide and SciMago Journal and Country Rank. 


Online journals via publisher websites
 Some publishers may cover your subject area better than others. Journal publisher websites give quick access to the tables of contents, so you can scroll through the recent issues to get a feel for current trends. You might notice ‘hot topics’ of the day and adjust your research scope to consider new concepts or frameworks. You can subscribe to receive notification of the table of contents of new issues of key journals by email. See the Library’s Keeping Up to Date guide for more detail. 

FiNDit allows you to search outside the Library’s collection and request items from other institutions. 

See the Library’s Document Delivery and Inter-Library Loan guide for more detail:

Grey literature is an umbrella term that describes materials produced on all levels of government, business and industry that is not distributed via commercial publishing methods. Grey literature allows for the introduction of alternative perspectives, is useful for exploring areas where there is little published evidence, and for finding recent and local resources. 

See the Library’s Grey Literature guide for more detail:

Activity - FiNDit

  • Enter words from your research question and click the search icon. 
  • Skim results; evaluate titles, citations and abstracts. 
  • From the most relevant results, use alternative terms to refine your search. Repeat until your result improves. 
  • On the left of the result screen, use the options under ‘refine my results’ to further hone your search.

       Findit screenshot

FiNDit 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 journals.
  • Search using a seminal author last name with a topic word, e.g. Bandura self-efficacy.
  • Filter by resource type, subject, or publication date range.
  • Sign in your FiNDit account to save queries and favourites.
  • See more tips in our FiNDit Search Help guide.


Advantages to using FiNDit: But keep in mind…

Useful as a starting point to identify key terminology. 

Combines results from the physical collection, eBook collection, many databases and ND theses. 

Searching is fast and easy.

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. 

FiNDit doesn’t provide access to all scholarly material available at Notre Dame University Library.

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

Activity - Find the right databases

  • Go to the Notre Dame Library Subject Guides page 
  • Select your subject area
  • Explore the different sections for databases, journals, etc.
  • Read the synopses for the databases that are likely to be relevant
  • Consider subject relevance and breadth of coverage and the types of formats indexed in the database.