Document Your Search Strategy with this Template

While assisting students with their research, I often use a template I made to keep track of key concepts, synonyms, and to organize search strategies. Since it’s a good practice to record search strategies, I thought I’d make it easy for other people to get the template. It includes space to document the databases, journals, or other resources that you use as well as queries, dates, etc.

Download the spreadsheet template from the following links. Copy, modify, and re-use it as you need.

Open document format (.ods)
Search strategy template & simplified version

Microsoft Excel format (.xlsx)
Search strategy templatesimplified version

Inside the template and how to use it.

Use the regular search strategy template to keep track of information that would be appropriate in the context of more involved or advanced research and academic work in which you might want someone to be able to reproduce your results. For example, if you’re communicating with your supervisor, collaborating with a team, or as part of working on a systematic literature review.

In this spreadsheet the first tab is useful for writing your research topic down, identifying the key concepts, and brainstorming corresponding synonyms. The second tab is useful for keeping track of the resources you searched and the details of your searches. Namely, you can record the search expressions you used (terms with Boolean operators, etc.), the limits you applied to the results, the quantity of results for each search, dates, and special notes or comments that you want to remember about what you found.

In the simplified version of the spreadsheet there is just one tab, which combines the keywords and the resources you used. You might prefer to use this simplified spreadsheet if you just need to keep track of some searches for a smaller project or assignment and to help organize your thoughts and strategies.

Why record your searches?

You will miss information if you’re not conscientious and critical about structuring and organizing your searches. A record detailing your methodology lets you critique and thus improve how you work. Depending on your project or assignment, documenting your searches may be necessary for additional reasons.

It is useful to consider the search expressions that you used so that you can analyze what produces useful results and why. This can help you search more productively and it makes it easier to return to your sources later when new information becomes available.

Remember, there is no such thing as one search tool that can find everything. Instead of using a combination of bookmarks, scraps of notes, or other techniques to keep track of where you searched, record the databases, tools, publications, etc. together in a space devoted to your project. This will make it easier to return to the ones that are most productive or to find something again if you need to reconsider your results. You may also discover new sources to search that you hadn’t considered in advance.

It’s likely that you won’t have considered all the useful terms prior to starting your search. As you discover new terms from the documents that you find, metadata, or other information you can keep track of those terms and then use them in the sources that you searched previously.

Ever misfile a good document but need to find information from it again? Forget to save bibliographic information in your reference manager? Yes? Then you’ll have to find it again. Recording your search strategies will help you to find the document again without racking your brain to figure out how you found it in the first place.

If someone else reads your research and needs be able to reproduce what you found, they’ll need your documentation. Systematic literature reviews call for complete search strategy documentation. Did you limit your results to a specific region or language of the world, to a specific time-frame, or type of document? You’ll want to keep track of the sources you searched, dates that you searched them, and other characteristics of your process.

Whether you use this template or not, save yourself a headache later on, and document your methodology.

More information about documenting search strategies

Read this Concordia Library guide on finding articles. Although it discusses articles, similar advice and techniques can be used for other types of documents.

The University of Leeds Library provides very nice guidance on documenting your search. It includes templates and example documents showing how to do this. I’d suggest reviewing those in case they work well for you.

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