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Topic analysis

Topic Analysis

This how to guide will take you through the steps to formulate a search strategy, starting with deconstructing and brainstorming your topic, through to considering truncating or combining search terms.

Thinking Time

Spend some time thinking about your topic before you start searching. Pay particular attention to the language you use to both conceptualise and describe the subject you require information about. Take the time to define key descriptors. This will benefit your thinking, and form the basis for your search strategies.

The following steps may help you formulate a search strategy:

  1. Determine what the topic is
  2. Deconstruct your topic into relevant keywords or phrases
  3. Brainstorm related terms to expand your search syntax
  4. Consider truncating your search terms
  5. Consider combining your search terms 
  6. Formulate your search strategy.

Step 1: Determine what the topic is

In this example, we will consider the following topic: The effects of pollution on frog reproduction.

Step 2: Deconstruct your topic into relevant keywords or phrases

Useful keywords: Useful phrases:
Effects “effects of pollution”
Pollution “environmental pollution”
Frog “breeding cycle of frogs”
Reproduction “reproductive habits”

Step 3: brainstorm related terms to expand your search syntax

Are there other ways to express your keywords and phrases to widen the search?


For example:

  • Effects OR consequences
  • Pollution OR poison OR toxin
  • Frog OR amphibian
  • Reproduction OR breeding

Note: you may find using a thesaurus or a subject dictionary useful at this point, to help expand your selection of possible keywords.

Spelling variations

Use of the ‘wildcard’ symbol—commonly represented by a question mark (?)—will search for multiple spellings. For example:

  • Behavio?r will search both behaviour, behavior.
  • Organi?tion will search both organisation, organization.


For example:

  • CVD, cardiovascular disease
  • ANU, Australian National University

Step 4: Consider truncating your search terms

Adding a truncation symbol—commonly an asterisk (*)—after the root of a word will find variations of that word. Truncating words returns variant spellings and endings, and can save you from having to do multiple searches.

For example:

  • Frogwill also return the word frogs.
  • Pollut* will return the words pollution, pollutant, and pollutants, etc.
  • Toxi* will return the words toxic, toxin, toxins, toxicity, and toxicology, etc.
  • Reproduc* will return the words reproduce, reproductive and reproduction, etc.

Step 5: Consider combining your search terms using Boolean operators and modifiers

Boolean operators and modifiers let you combine keywords and phrases to retrieve specific search results. They are inserted between your keywords and phrases, and must always appear in UPPER CASE. Taking the time to learn basic Boolean allows you to create increasingly specific searches to find the information you need faster and with less stress.

For example:

Use AND to narrow or focus your search and retrieve records containing only the specified words. For example:

  • islam AND calligraphy
  • diet AND pregnancy AND allergies    
  • rivers AND catchments


Use OR to broaden your search and retrieve records containing any of the words specified. For example:

  • frogs OR amphibians
  • bushfires OR wildfires
  • finance OR banking


If you use the OR operator when searching for acronyms and abbreviations, remember to include the actual term spelt in full as well as the abbreviation. For example:

  • spi OR soy protein isolate
  • pow OR prisoner of war
  • un OR united nations

Use NOT (which sometimes also appears as AND NOT) to narrow your search results and return records that do not contain a specified term. Note: Some search engines do not recognise NOT, so for these you will need to use the minus symbol. For example:

  • woodlands NOT forests
    woodlands -forests
  • opera NOT soap
    opera -soap
  • “conflict resolution” NOT international
    "conflict resolution" -international


Use parentheses ( ) to group words and phrases together when combining the OR operator with an AND operator in the same search. This is sometimes referred to as Nesting. For example:

  • (burma OR myanmar) AND facebook 
  • (mouse OR mice) AND (gene OR pseudogene)
  • deregulation AND (finance OR banking)


Step 6: Formulate your search strategy

By following the steps above, you should now be able to formulate a sound search strategy (known as a search string). Using your research topic, you can begin to create increasingly complex search strings. Your search strategy might look like this:

  • (dog OR canine) AND "cat scan" NOT human
  • (frogOR amphibian*) AND 
    (pollut* OR toxi*) AND (breeding OR reproduct*)
  • (facebook OR "social media") AND (burma OR myanmar) AND unrest


In summary

There are many different methods you can use to search for the information you need, and the steps outlined above are by no means mandatory.

Some search strategies return better results than others. Learning to be expansive with your language and creative with your search operators/symbols, in conjunction the many Boolean search operators and modifiers out there, can really boost your searches and save you time and stress.

Remember, it make require you to try a number of different strategies in order to find the ones that work best for your given context.

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