12 Seven Pillars: Plan

As you work through your own information quests, it is very important to be self-reflective. The first couple of items in this list have been considered in the Identify chapter:

  • What do you really need to find?
  • Do you need to learn more about the general subject before you can identify the focus of your search?
  • How thoroughly did you develop your search strategy?
  • Did you spend enough time finding the best tools to search?
  • What is going really well, so well that you’ll want to remember to do it in the future?

Another term for what you are doing is metacognition, or thinking about your thinking. As you read this chapter, you may find that you already know some of the strategies presented here. Do you do them the same way? How does it work? What pieces are new to you? When might you follow this advice? Don’t just let the words flow over you, rather think carefully about the explanation of the process. You may disagree with some of what you read. If you do, follow though and test both methods to see which provides better results.

After you have thought the planning process through more thoroughly, start to think about where you can look for information. Part of planning to do research is determining which search tools will be the best ones to use. This applies whether you are doing scholarly research or trying to answer a question in your everyday life, such as what would be the best place to go on vacation. “Search tools” might be a bit misleading, since a person might be the source of the information you need. Or it might be a web search engine, a specialized database, an association—the possibilities are endless. Often people automatically search Google first, regardless of what they are looking for. Choosing the wrong search tool may just waste your time and provide only mediocre information, whereas other sources might provide really spot-on information and quickly, too. In some cases, a carefully constructed search on Google, particularly using the advanced search option, will provide the necessary information, but other times it won’t. This is true of all sources: make an informed choice about which ones to use for a specific need.

So, how do you identify search tools? Let’s begin with a first-rate method. For academic research, talking with a librarian or your professor is a great start. They will direct you to those specialized tools that will provide access to what you need. If you ask a librarian for help, she or he may also show you some tips about searching in the resources. This chapter will cover some of the generic strategies that will work in many search tools, but a librarian can show you very specific ways to focus your search and retrieve the most useful items.

If neither your professor nor a librarian is available when you need help, check your school’s library website to see what guidance is provided. There will often be subject-related guides or lists of the best resources to assist researchers. There may be a directory of the databases the library subscribes to and the subjects they cover. Take advantage of the expertise of librarians by using such guides. Novice researchers usually don’t think of looking for this type of help, and, as a consequence, often waste time.

When you are looking for non-academic material, consider who cares about this type of information. Who works with it? Who produces it or help guides for it? Some sources are really obvious, and you are already using them—for example, if you need information about the weather in London three days from now, you might check Weather.com for London’s forecast. You don’t go to a library (in person or online), and you don’t do a research database search. For other information you need, think the same way. Are you looking for anecdotal information on old railroads? Find out if there is an organization of railroad buffs. You can search on the web for this kind of information, or, if you know about and have access to it, you could check the Encyclopedia of Associations. This source provides entries for all U.S. membership organizations, which can quickly lead you to a potentially wonderful source of information. Librarians can point you to tools like these.

As you consider the information presented in this chapter, keep the scope of the information you are looking for in mind. In the previous chapter we examined the topic of scope in detail. The breadth and depth of the information you require will have an impact as you plan.

Consider Asking an Expert

Have you thought about using people, not just inanimate sources, as a way to obtain information? This might be particularly appropriate if you are working on an emerging topic or a topic with local connections. There are a variety of reasons that talking with someone will add to your research.

For personal interactions, there are other specific things you can do to obtain better results. Do some background work on the topic before contacting the person you hope to interview. The more familiarity you have with your topic and its terminology, the easier it will be to ask focused questions. Focused questions are important if you want to get into the meat of what you need. Asking general questions because you think the specifics might be too detailed rarely leads to the best information. Acknowledge the time and effort someone is taking to answer your questions, but also realize that people who are passionate about subjects enjoy sharing what they know. Take the opportunity to ask experts about sources they would recommend.

Determining Search Concepts and Keywords

Once you’ve selected some good resources for your wicked problem, and possibly talked with an expert, it is time to move on to identify words you will used to search for information on your wicked problem in various databases and search engines. This is sometimes referred to as building a search query. When deciding what terms to use in a search, break down your wicked problem into its main concepts. Don’t enter an entire sentence, or a full question. Different databases and search engines process such queries in different ways, but many look for the entire phrase you enter as a complete unit, rather than the component words. While some will focus on just the important words, the results are often still unsatisfactory. The best thing to do is to use the key concepts involved with your wicked problem. In addition, think of synonyms or related terms for each concept. If you do this, you will have more flexibility when searching in case your first search term doesn’t produce any or enough results. This may sound strange, since if you are looking for information using a Web search engine, you almost always get too many results. Databases, however, contain fewer items, and having alternative search terms may lead you to useful sources. Even in a search engine like Google, having terms you can combine thoughtfully will yield better results.

Boolean Operators

Once you have the concepts you want to search, you need to think about how you will enter them into the search box. Often, but not always, Boolean operators will help you. You may be familiar with Boolean operators. They provide a way to link terms. Boolean operators are also discussed in the Scope chapter. The information in the two chapters complements each other and reading about this important topic again provides a review for the topics that overlap.

We will start by capturing the ideas of the women creating the art. We will use women painters and women artists as the first step in our sample search. You could do two separate searches by typing one or the other of the terms into the search box of whatever tool you are using:

women painters

women artists

You would end up with two separate result lists and have the added headache of trying to identify unique items from the lists. You could also search on the phrase

women painters and women artists

But once you understand Boolean operators, that last strategy won’t make as much sense as it seems to.

There are three Boolean operators: and, or, and not.

And is used to get the intersection of all the terms you wish to include in your search. With this example

women painters and women artists

you are asking that the items you retrieve have both of those terms. If an item only has one term, it won’t show up in the results. This is not what the searcher had in mind—she is interested in both artists and painters, because she doesn’t know which term might be used. She doesn’t intend that both terms have to be used. Let’s go on to the next Boolean operator, which will help us out with this problem.

Or is used when you want at least one of the terms to show up in the search results. If both do, that’s fine, but it isn’t a condition of the search. So or makes a lot more sense for this search:

women painters or women artists

Now, if you want to get fancy with this search, you could use both and as well as or:

women and (painters or artists)

The parentheses mean that these two concepts, painters and artists, should be searched as a unit, and the search results should include all items that use one word or the other. The results will then be limited to those items that contain the word women. If you decide to use parentheses for appropriate searches, make sure that the items contained within them are related in some way. With or, as in our example, it means either of the terms will work. With and, it means that both terms will appear in the document.

Type both of these searches in Google Scholar and compare the results (please note, you must capitalize OR when using it as a Boolean operator in Google products). Were they the same? If not, can you determine what happened? Which result list looked better?

Here is another example of a search string, using both parentheses and two Boolean operators:

entrepreneurship and (adolescents or teens)

In this search, you are looking for entrepreneurial initiatives connected with people in their teens. Because there are so many ways to categorize this age group, it makes sense to indicate that either of these terms should appear in the results, along with entrepreneurship.

However, this search string isn’t perfect. Can you pick out two problems with the search terms?

The third Boolean operator, not, can be problematic. Not is used to exclude items from your search. If you have decided, based on the scope of the results you are getting, to focus only on a specific aspect of a topic, use not, but be aware that items are being lost in this search. For example, if you entered

entrepreneurship and (adolescents or teens) not adults

you might lose some good results. Why? If you would like to see graphical representations of the effects of Boolean operators, take a look at the Scope chapter in this book.

Here is a good overview of Boolean operator use.


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Tackling Wicked Problems by Members of the TWP Community is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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