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Guide to Information Seeking: Planning information search

Defining the information need and topic

The information seeking process starts with a task or a problem that needs to be solved and to do that you need information. First of all you can think what kind of information you are looking for and what you already know about the subject. Familiarize yourself with the subject matter for example by looking for general information about the topic in newspapers. Browse and read theses or handbooks that have a similar topic.

Use mind or concept maps to structure your topic into concepts. You can add new concepts to the map during the info search process. Think about what relates to your topic: is it a part of a larger concept or does it consist of smaller detailed sections? Defining the topic carefully at the beginning of the information search process helps and speeds up finding the relevant information.

Image: Robyn Jay (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Search terms

Thinking up search terms is one of the most important as well as time-consuming stages of the information seeking process. Search terms define whether the search has a positive result or not. The words you use to describe the topic of your research to others are not necessarily the same that help find publications related to your topic.

It is useful to spend some time thinking up search terms. Look into what is essential in your research topic and what are the things you would like to learn more about. The goal is to determine the concepts central to your research topic and turn those concepts into search terms.

Dictionaries and thesauri are useful in thinking up search terms. Also, literature relating to your field of study will help you find suitable words to use as search terms. Pay special attention to synonyms as well as concepts, words and acronyms that describe your topic in a broader or more narrow sense. For many concepts there is a fixed acronym, e.g. human resource management is known as HRM. It is useful to try to seek information using both.

A good way to start information seeking is to choose two or three central search terms that describe your topic of research. Try seeking with the words that came into your mind as well as subject terms found in thesauruses. By trying and combining different types of search terms it is easy to either broaden or narrow down your search and thus gain an overall view of what has been written about your topic.

Use dictionaries to choose search terms, for example MOT online dictionaries. MOT Online includes dictionaries, proofing and machine translation.

Help from thesauruses

A subject term thesaurus is helpful when seeking information or storing information. A thesaurus provides a common language to describe the contents of publications. Using subject terms helps you find material suitable for your research topic.

Subject terms describe the central content of publications within databases. They may also be called subject headings, descriptors or simply subjects. Subject terms are not just any words that describe a topic but words adhering to certain standards and compiled in thesauruses. Most often subject terms are expressed in plural form when words describe topics that are concrete and countable. Topics which are uncountable, abstract or describing actions are in singular.

Ultimately a thesaurus is a list where one term describes and stands for the equivalent concept.

Thesauruses also show relations between terms. Possible alternate terms and synonyms are limited so that only one term is used for all the words that have the same meaning. You can look at the hierarchy and relations between terms in a thesaurus, for example:

  • related terms
  • associative terms
  • broader terms
  • narrower terms
  • synonyms

Do take note that a related term does not mean the same as a synonym. A related term helps you discover subject terms linked to a certain concept.

If your search does not provide you with enough references, try searching with a broader term. If, on the other hand, you get too many references, use a narrower term. Sometimes thesauruses may also provide you with the correct subject term to describe a concept instead of the word you have used.

Thesauruses may be general and independent of databases and subject matters. The most commonly used thesaurus in Finland, YSO – general Finnish ontology, is an example of such. YSO is a part of Finto, Finnish thesaurus and ontology service, which includes several subject matter specific thesauruses within it.

Databases may have their own thesauri and for that reason the subject terms used in information seeking should always be checked within each database. Subject terms can often be found under e.g. Thesaurus, Subject Terms or Subjects.

In Turku UAS Finna, you can see all the subject terms by clicking on Show all details. Subject terms can be found under Subjects. By clicking on the subject term, you can find other books in the same field.

NB: YSO, General Finnish Ontology, is used widely in Turku UAS Finna. However, subject terms are in Finnish in general in Turku UAS Finna, so remember to check the Finnish versions when using YSO in English!

Databases may have their own thesauri and for that reason the subject terms used in information seeking should always be checked within each database. Subject terms can often be found under e.g. Thesaurus, Subject Terms or Subjects.

See help sheets on how to use database-specific thesauri in EBSCOHost article databases:

About this guide

This guide aims to support Turku UAS students and staff in searching information. It is a major part of the study material in the Information Skills Online Course.

Do you need help?

Contact Library at the Turku University of Applied Sciences by email

We are happy to help you!

Usage rights of the guide

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This publication has been licensed with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license