Finding scientific information: 3. Improving search results

Improving search results

Evaluation is an essential part of scientific information retrieval. Sometimes a search report can contain hundreds of references, none of which are relevant. In that case, you should rethink the search terms and how they are combined, the choice of databases and the search technique. The databases have useful tools for analysing and organising the search results.




Check list for better search results

  • Check spelling errors.
  • Check the truncation of search terms. Think about how the word conjugates. Don't search with too short a word stem. Check if the program recognises certain basic conjugation forms automatically. 
  • Check from the Database guide that you have used for example phrase search and the proximity operators correctly.
  • Make sure that the program implements your search string correctly. For example, does it combine alternative expressions with the OR operator and restrict terms with the AND operator?
  • The order of the search boxes and implementing the operators varies from one database to another. Use parenthesis if needed.

Relevance denotes how well  the search result meets your information needs, in other words if the content is appropriate for your research topic. Read the preface, abstract, introduction, and the conclusion to find out if the document is relevant to you.

The databases offer an option to organise a set of results according to the relevance ranking calculated by the database. In Scopus database for example the following attributes contribute to relevance scoring:

  • Number of times the search term appears in a reference record
  • A word in the title, abstract or keyword field is more important than elsewhere in the record
  • How close together the terms from the query are found in the record

More information



If you get too many (irrelevant) references

  • Could you refine your search by adding an additional concept using AND-operator?
  • Use narrower concepts and more specific terms
  • Consider a proximity operator or even a phrase search instead of AND -operator.
  • Refine your search using the Refine and Analyze tools offered by the database. For example refine your search to scientific refereed /peer reviewed articles only.
  • Focus the search on the title field.
  • If you are using a multi-disciplinary database, does it offer the function of restricting the search to a subject area?
  • Sort the result list by relevance.

If you get too few or no references at all

  • Look for more synonyms for your search terms.
  • Use a broader concept.
  • Try full text search.
  • Is the database suitable for the topic?
  • If you have even one good reference, use pearl growing strategy.
  • Consider a proximity operator instead of a phrase search.
  • Utilize the search history to find possible bottlenecks.