3: Structuring Your Research Queries

Learning Resources


⊂ Research Tutorial 03: Structuring Your Research Queries ⊃


About

What is Boolean?

Boolean is a system of logic derived from the work of George Boole (1815 – 1864). His Boolean Algebra was eventually used to optimize the design of systems of electromechanical relays used in telephone routing switches. What is now known as Boolean Logic is a complete system for logical operations, and this has found applications in database design and query / search systems. Think of the library databases or the library catalogue (essentially 2 different types of search engines) that all use Boolean Logic.

Why this is important to know when using a Library Catalogue or Database?

Doing searches on library catalogues & databases works best when using structured queries.

What many people do when they search for information on the internet is to submit to a search engine, such as Google, a whole phrase, sentence or question as their search query. This may produce OK results, but it does not produce the most effective search query results. Understanding boolean logic allows you to structure your searches to obtain the best results from your search queries.


1 Using Boolean Logic

What is a Boolean Operator?

Boolean Logic allows you to combine/structure concepts into keyword searches using three commands, also known as "operators".

Mastering the three boolean operators (and, or, not), is key to structuring your research queries.

In the module on Concept Mapping you may have wondered, ‘what were those words (AND, OR, NOT) dividing search concepts?’

Using . . . .

  • AND – between search terms retrieves documents containing all the terms in your search query;
  • OR – tells the search engine to retrieve documents containing at least one of the terms from your search query;
  • NOT – will instruct the search engine to exclude a specific term from your search query results. Use "NOT" with caution!

Once you’ve finished brainstorming for keyword synonyms, the next step is to create some search queries to submit to a library catalogue or database.

Remember your Keyword lists? If you skipped this step or need a review then go to the tutorial on Concept Mapping. You will need to understand the steps covered in this section to proceed with this module.


2 Visualizing a Query Structure

Sometimes it’s useful to create a visualize image of how your query might look.

Notice the following about the diagram above:

  • None of the concepts are in alphabetical or any other order.
  • The Boolean Operators (AND, OR, NOT) are all interchangeable (although they will not produce the same results).

Ask yourself some questions about conducting a search:

  • Do any of the concepts overlap?
  • Which boolean operators will you choose to connect/combine your concepts?
  • Will it be more productive to combine all your concepts into one search query? Or will it be more useful to break your concepts apart and create 2 different search queries from your concepts?


3 How to Start

(A) What is a Search Query?

“Search Queries” are the words and phrases that users enter into a search engine, directory, or catalogue. To generate better search results, use boolean operators to combine keywords and concepts.


Regardless of whether you are using a catalogue or database, the rules for how boolean operators are applied do not change.

(B) A Starting Point – Identifying Your Concepts

The module on Concept Mapping covered methods to identifying the main concepts and ideas of your research topic. One example read as follows:

  • In what way is workplace violence / aggression related to a negative work environment factors such as verbal abuse, ridicule, or racial discrimination?

With the main concepts identified by colour, they can now be arranged in separate columns:

  • Concept A
    workplace
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept B
    violence / aggression
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept C
    negative environment
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept D
    factors


4 Combining 2 Concepts

Simple search queries often combine only 2 concepts and generally this can be enough to find what you need. Search queries with only 2 concepts might look like:

  • concept A AND concept B
  • concept A OR concept C
  • concept B NOT concept D

Submitting these queries to a catalogue would produce a results list of items with the following characteristics:

  • combining concept A AND concept B will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of both concept A and B;
  • combining concept A OR concept C will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of either concept A or C or both A and C; and
  • combining concept B NOT concept D will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of B but exclude D from the search results.


5 Examples

Using the example from the module on Concept Mapping . . . .

  • In what way is workplace violence / aggression related to a negative work environment factors such as verbal abuse, ridicule, or racial discrimination.
  • Concept A
    workplace
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept B
    violence / aggression
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept C
    negative environment
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept D
    factors

. . . . queries using 2 concepts can be constructed in the same fashion.

Simple search queries often combine only 2 concepts and often this can be enough to find what you need. Search queries with only 2 concepts might look like:

  • workplace AND violence
  • workplace OR negative environment
  • violence NOT factors

Submitting these queries to a catalogue would produce a results list of items with the following characteristics:

  • combining workplace AND violence will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of both concept workplace and violence;
  • combining workplace OR negative environment will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of either concept workplace or C or both workplace and negative environment; and
  • combining violence NOT factors will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of violence but exclude factors from the search results.


6 Combining 3 or More Concepts

Sometimes simple queries with only 2 concepts are not enough to find what you need. In this case, you can also combine 3 or more concepts. Search queries with 3 or concepts might look like:

  • concept A AND concept B AND concept D
  • concept A AND concept B OR concept D
  • concept A AND (concept B OR concept D) NOT concept C

Submitting these queries to a catalogue would produce a results list of items with the following characteristics:

  • combining concept A with concept B & concept D using AND will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of all three concepts A, B, and D;
  • combining concept A with concept B using AND and then adding concept D using OR will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention always mention A, but which also contain B or D or both B & D. Note that the results will always contain records with mention of concept A;
  • combining concept B & D with OR inside parenthesis and then combining that with concept A using AND plus concept C using NOT, will produce a results list with the following characteristics:
    1. either concept B or D or both B & D will appear in the records in your search results;
    2. concept A will be mentioned in all the records in your search results; and
    3. any records containing mention of concept C will be excluded from your results list.


7 Examples

Using the example from the module on Concept Mapping . . . .

  • In what way is workplace violence / aggression related to a negative work environment factors such as verbal abuse, ridicule, or racial discrimination.
  • Concept A
    workplace
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept B
    violence / aggression
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept C
    negative environment
    AND / OR / NOT
    Concept D
    factors

. . . . queries using 3 concepts can be constructed in the same fashion.

Search queries with only 3 concepts might look like:

  • workplace AND violence AND factors
  • workplace AND violence OR factors
  • workplace AND (violence OR factors) NOT negative
    environment

Submitting these queries to a catalogue would produce a results list of items with the following characteristics:

  • combining workplace with violence & factors using AND will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention of workplace, violence, and factors;
  • combining workplace with violence using AND and then adding factors using OR will produce a results list of items whose records contain mention always mention workplace, but which also contain violence or factors or both violence & factors. Note that the results will always contain records with mention of workplace;
  • combining concepts violence & factors with OR inside (parenthesis) and then combining that with workplace using AND plus negative environment using NOT will produce a results list with the following characteristics:
    1. either concept violence or factors or both violence & factors will appear in the records in your search results;
    2. workplace will be mentioned in all the records in your search results; and
    3. any records containing mention of negative environment will be excluded from your results list.


8 Adjusting Your Search Queries

Since the terms you use in the catalogue might not be as effective in a database, and vice versa, building a keyword list of interchangeable keywords can provide you with alternatives. This can save you time and it can also help you improve your search results.

Changing up your keywords between searches in the same database or between different databases can often generate results that you might otherwise miss.

Using the example from this module . . . .

  • In what way is workplace violence / aggression related to a negative work environment factors such as verbal abuse, ridicule, or racial discrimination.

. . . . you can extend your list of available keywords and thus extend the possibilities of your search queries

  • Concept A
    workplace
    institution
    office
    organization
    plant
    AND/ OR / NOT
    Concept B
    violence
    coercion
    antagonism
    hostility
    cruelty
    aggression
    AND/ OR / NOT
    Concept C
    negative environment
    detrimental surroundings
    intolerance
    prejudice
    adverse atmosphere
    AND/ OR / NOT
    Concept D
    factors
    verbal abuse
    ridicule
    racism
    sexism

What if the 2 concept search queries below weren’t generating very good search results? Try substituting a keyword:

  • workplace AND violence

    → try substituting institution for workplace and/or coercion for violence;

  • workplace OR negative environment

    → try replacing workplace with organization and/or negative environment with intolerance;

  • violence NOT factors

    → try substituting aggression for violence and/or verbal abuse (or just abuse) for factors.

Now it’s your turn to practice. Given what you already know about your research topic, what changes do you think might be productive in the search queries below?

  • workplace AND violence AND factors

  • workplace AND violence OR factors

  • workplace AND (violence OR factors) NOT negative environment

REMEMBER: You can add to your keyword list as you find terms that are more meaningful and effective for your research. You can also remove items from this list as you discover that some keywords are of little or no use to your research.


9 Tips & Hints

Conducting research using online library catalogues and electronic databases requires flexibility and focused attention. Items and materials housed in different collections / repositories are all configured a little differently.

Here are some things you should realize:

  • Materials accessed through a library catalogue are catalogued and processed by people working within an institutional framework. Every library catalogue will behave a little differently from the next. A cataloguer can often be faced with the dilemma of a book that can be classified and catalogued in 3 ways. So choices must be made. Where you expect to find an item is not necessarily where it will be kept.
  • You can buy a burger at Wendy’s of McDonald’s. They’ll both be burgers, but they’ll also be different. The same is true of many of the electronic resources that you will use in your academic career. Many research databases are resources supplied by commercial entities, so any 2 databases for the same discipline can supply a different flavour, so to speak.

This means that the ways in which items are filed and how they are discussed can vary:

  • the professional / disciplinary terminology for a given field of study and research can and will vary;
  • the subject terms by which an item is catalogued in a library holdings or an electronic database can be different than those terms used in the actual discourse for a given field of study;



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