One search strategy tip that has made it into all of my information literacy and research strategy classes is to inform students that they cannot search library resources with an entire sentence — they need to select the major keywords from their thesis statement or question and search just those words.
This reminder comes from experience at the reference desk. Occasionally I will assist a student who is convinced that the library has no books about the research topic. I ask the student to walk me through the search process. The student goes to the library catalog or journal database, types the thesis statement into the database and proudly shows me that the library has no books or articles on the topic. For example, the library has no books about “what are the potential benefits and risks of alternative medicine”. I gently show the student how to search just the major keywords and the abundance of information that we do have on the topic.
I was reminded of this searching strategy last February (a year ago already!). The top search on Google that day was “did the groundhog see its shadow”. Of course through searching full-text websites which had this or similar questions and answers, the user would find the answer to their simple question. It is no surprise then that a student brings this successful search strategy to complex research topics and structured databases.
In some sense, research was easier in the days of the print card catalog and Reader’s Guide Index. Students were forced to search for keywords and standard subject phrases by the very structure and nature of the physical catalog.
The question becomes do we change the resource or the user? I understand the desire to change database features to allow natural language queries. Indeed, I point to this feature in SciFinder Scholar. However, I am cautious about moving too far in this direction. I worry that we downplay how difficult good research is to complete. Do we imply that there really is a simple “google-like” answer to complex questions such as risks of specific healthcare options if we allow natural language queries rather than having students struggle through alternate keywords, subject terms and Boolean logic? Do we want students to understand the very different structure and purpose of research databases when compared to general internet search engines?
I spend time in Nursing courses teaching MeSH (medical subject heading) within PubMed searching, even in First Year nursing student levels. I know I am asking alot of them at those basic levels. I know that many of them will revert to the simple search box on the initial page. But I think (or hope?) they also walk away with a greater appreciation for the structure and complexity of knowledge.
I’m sure I will join with the rest of America on February 2 when I search Google to find the answer to whether the groundhog saw its shadow. However, I think I’ll stick to medical databases and structured searching strategies when considering the best health care options for me and my loved ones!