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Finding Information: A Four-Step Process: 4-Step Process

4 Simple Steps to Retrieve Relevant Results


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Petra Pierre-Robertson
Caribbean Educational Research Information Service (CERIS)
School of Education
The University of the West Indies
St. Augustine
18686622002 ext 83336

Step 1: Identify your information need

What is your information need?  Do you require a definition, a conceptual framework, research, an overview, an article?

Step 2: Be aware of the information resources available to you

What are the information resources available to you?

Your information need must match your information resource. 

Information resources include but are not limited to the following (which are available in both electronic and print formats):

  • Books
  • Journals
  • Articles
  • Brochures
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Guides
  • Almanacs
  • Minutes
  • Reports
  • Thesis
  • Websites
  • Encyclopedias
  • Databases


Note: You do not look for definitions in a journal, neither do you look for research in a text book.  

Step 3: Identify the database providers attached to your library

Some database providers include:



Emerald Insight 


Which database provider gives access to the resource you need to search having identified your need? 

Remember different platforms/database providers will allow access to any combination of the resources identified in step 2 (of course paid for/subscribed to, by your university library)

Step 4: Engage in a keyword or subject search

Having selected your database how do you begin to search?  You have two major options:

A keyword search:  Finds records where the word or combination of words is mentioned in designated fields from an online catalog or database.  You will get a lot of records, some (if not most of which) may be irrelevant.


A subject search: Uniform words representing the same concept or theory or idea that you are researching. In addition to ‘subject search’, you may hear other terms like, ‘thesaurus’, ‘controlled vocabulary’, ‘index terms’, ‘descriptors’ etc. They are really standardized words or phrases that each database will assign to books and articles to make your search easy.  Librarians and information professionals try to think like you in applying descriptors to items.  It means that you can use several different terms to yield relevant results for your search, because the terms are related to each other and will point to similar items that you may retrieve.

The Real Challenge

Determining the correct subject headings for a specific database or catalog is an important part of effective research.   Here lies the challenge to what I term Triple-R - Retrieving Relevant Results.

A practical walk through the 4-step process

Step 1 My information Need:  I have a research assignment for my Literature class - ‘The sea is History’ Discuss with specific reference to the concept of Adam in the early aesthetic of Derek Walcott.

Step 2:  What are the information resources available to me that I require to complete this paper? Basically print books (you can search either the  library's catalogue or UWIlinC), or electronic books, electronic journals or any other resource of which I am not yet aware, but I did hear my lecturer mention online dissertation and theses.  I believe that the library has an online thesis collection, which I will explore as well as digital material available through specific providers - which I will also explore.

Step 3:  Which database provider should I select?  I am not sure. Given my uncertainty I will utilise the broadest search via a discovery tool – a resource that allows me to search all the databases. That would be UWIlinC, Ebsco Discovery Service (EDS) or other discovery services or federated search tools. These tools allow me to search both print and electronic journals, books, thesis and other material.  If I am aware of what is provided by platforms I will explore specific databases (Databases A-Z or other listing of databases provided by my library).  Now if I heard the lecturer mention a particular online journal I will explore 'e-journals'.

Step 4: I now need to decide if I will Engage in a Keyword or Subject Search.  I want the terms I enter to yield relevant results. This is usually where the challenge lies.

  • In most instances your keyword does not reflect your subject, so you may have some breaking down to do before venturing into the online or physical library. You must must understand what you are researching before venturing to the library to begin executing your search. You may have to transform keywords into subject headings and to effectively do so you must have a grasp of your paper. If you don’t understand the paper, you may just have to utilise general reference tools to clear up ambiguity.  These tools include subject specific academic encyclopedias and dictionaries, handbooks and biographies (in the case of my paper) to name a few.

Let’s break my paper down to determine whether keywords are subject headings and come up with some searchable terms:

  1. Identify Keywords (words as they appear in the paper/research question)
  • Sea
  • History
  • Adam
  • Derek Walcott
  1. Ask the following combination of questions
  • Are any of the Keywords Subject Headings? 

Yes, ‘Derek Walcott’

  • Are there other keywords that need to be translated into Subject Headings?

Yes, ‘The Sea is History’ and ‘Adam’

  • How can they be translated into subject headings or searched for relevance?

‘The Sea is History’ is a Poem, however for specificity and relevance it needs to be searched in relation to Derek Walcott. Advance searching strategies allow for the utilization of what is called Boolean operators (AND/OR/NOT) to bring terms together and allow more relevant retrievals.  In this case an example of an advance searching strategy will be ‘The Sea is History’ AND ‘Derek Walcott’ 

‘Adam’ cannot be searched as a single term. To do so would yield a plethora of irrelevant results. It must be searched in relation to Derek Walcott.  ‘Derek Walcott’ AND ‘Adam’

Combining ‘Adam’ AND ‘The Sea is History’ may take me away from Derek Walcott and thus my retrievals may be largely irrelevant.

This research will take me into critical analysis of Derek Walcott’s early aesthetic as well as material that covers:

  •  West Indian Poetry (Broken down into specific time period and author)
  • West Indian Authors (Broken down into specific author and aesthetic