Chapter 4. Searching for Information

[Table of Contents] [Previous Chapter] [Next Chapter]

It has been estimated that the average scientist uses up to 20% of his or her time for information retrieval. It is therefore very important that you learn to do this efficiently!

4.1 Types of information searches

There are different kinds of information needs, and these can be met by different types of information search:

4.1.1 Retrospective information retrieval - Following up published research

There is a need for information on previous work within a given subject area when you are starting a new project. This can be met by the Retrospective Information Search. Retrospective searches vary in depth, ranging from a preliminary background search in connection with a new project, to a comprehensive investigation of all the total available information, in connection with a research thesis.
Background information
This type of search is used when you need background information on a specific subject area. It is often used by students in connection with projects. It is possible to obtain background information through textbooks, encyclopaedias, research reviews and indexes and abstracts in either print form, or on CD-ROM or online.
Extensive information
The need for comprehensive information arises when you are about to start research work on an extensive project and do not wish to repeat work that has already been done! The term "extensive" is in all senses relative - there is a point where the time consumed and the cost for further information retrieval must act as limiting factors.

4.1.2 Current Awareness Searching - Keeping up-to- date

Scientists and engineers need to keep up-to-date with progress in their own disciplines and within related areas. This can be achieved by Current Awareness searching, which can be carried out in a number of ways:

4.1.3 Citation searching

The citation index is an entirely different type of index, which allows you to search forwards in time from a known relevant paper. In every field of scholarship, research workers and practitioners cite references to earlier publications related to the work described in their own papers. Through these references (citations) an author expresses subject relationships between the current article and the cited references. A citation index is based on these relationships. It lists publications that have been cited and identifies the sources of these citations. Starting from a known relevant reference, it is possible to trace subsequent articles which refer to the original document, thus leading to more recent literature than the first known item. Citation indexes are designed to facilitate searching forwards in time from a known relevant paper.

The Science Citation Index - SCI - covers over 5 600 journals in a wide range of subjects in the physical and natural sciences, medicine and technology.

SCI consists of three main parts:

Citation Index -
every reference (citation) from the articles in the Source Index, that are being referred to (or cited) during a given period of time is listed in alphabetical sequence under the name of the first author;
Source Index -
an alphabetically arranged author index, giving full bibliographic details of all the source publications; journal articles, reviews, books etc. are indexed by the first author (with references from other authors);
Permuterm Index -
a subject index in which every significant word in the title of every article being indexed is paired with every other significant word in the title and rotated (e.g. AB, BA).
Citation indexes are extremely useful tools for "working forwards" from a highly relevant reference. In using them, it is, however, important to bear in mind the normal pattern of citation. There is a time-lag between the publication of a document and the first reference to it, due to the time taken to assimilate the new information, the time taken to make use of it in further research and the time taken to publish the citing document. The citation index is a powerful tool for information retrieval, in that it is possible to use a cyclic technique, in which the citing document found, together with other papers by the same author (s), may act as new search entry points. ISI provide annual user guides for Science Citation Index, as well as lists of the journals covered. These are arranged alphabetically, by subject and by country of publication. The equivalent database - SciSearch - is available on the Data-Star and DIALOG information retrieval systems, as well as via the Bath Information and Data Services - BIDS - in the United Kingdom.

4.1.4 Searching for facts

The need forfactual information often arises during the work process and usually takes the form of a specific information requirement in order to continue working. This type of specific information can be found in handbooks, tables, charts, dictionaries, and factual data-banks. You need a quick and reliable answer to a query - for example, the melting point of an alloy or the characteristics of a certain component. Handbooks and tables are renewed at frequent intervals, so make sure that you are using the most recent edition.

4.1.5 Browsing

Browsing is a form of random literature searching for information, in which you select and scan material within a mass of available literature. This type of search is often carried out outside your usual field of interest. This unplanned random information searching can serve as a stimulus and can be a very fruitful source of new ideas.

4.2 The search process

The first stage of the retrospective information search, the current awareness search and the factual search is to know what you are looking for. This sounds easy, but many people starting on a project experience difficulty in both deciding on the topic and defining the true information needs.

When faced with the task of deciding on a research topic, you have to weigh possible topics against criteria of personal interest, information available, the possibility of good supervision and the time available for the task. This is not always very easy. One of the strategies involves making a preliminary information search to get a rough idea of the kind and amount of information that is available. Many students experience both anxiety and confusion until the topic is selected, but this usually changes to anticipation once a decision is reached. Having decided on a topic, you will need to make a more detailed information search. You do this in a series of stages (see Fig.11):

  1. Formulate the search question in a clear and concise search statement.
  2. Analyse the search question into component aspects, which can be represented by keywords or descriptors (search terms).
  3. Develop and expand the search statement by means of synonyms, broader terms and terms related to the descriptors, so that all possible aspects are covered. Tools to be used in this development process are dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopaedias, handbooks etc. Known relevant articles and references can orovide valuable starting-points.
  4. Limit the search to suit the purpose of the search (project, application, thesis etc.), the subject area and the time span required.
  5. Choose the appropriate tools for information retrieval - library catalogues, research reviews, secondary publications, databases etc.
  6. Search for the relevant information.
  7. Evaluate the results of the search.
  8. If necessary, modify and alter the search strategy.
Lack of precision in defining the real information need can lead to poor search results. The relationship between the true information needs and the search construction is illustrated in Fig. 12. It can be seen that the expressed needs are not always the real needs, and this can lead to the retrieval of only a few relevant documents and much irrelevant material. At all stages, it is necessary to make use of feedback and to evaluate the findings.

Fig. 11. Diagrammatic representation of the search process.