Defining the search topic

What problem are you trying to solve?
What question are you trying to answer?

These are the types of questions you will have to answer the first when you analyse your information needs on a certain topic. Information needs means in this case the information you can acquire from scientific publications; usually not just the limited, specific issue, but also the wider context of the topic.

Example of questions related to a topic:


  • Heat treatment effects on wood surface quality


  • How heat treatment affects wood surface quality?
  • What are the quality properties of wood or timber, mechanical and other?
  • Why is wood treated with heat?
  • What kind of heat treatments for wood are available?
  • What chemical processes happen when wood is treated with heat?
  • What methods are used/needed to study wood surface quality?

If you are unfamiliar with your topic, the first task is to get an overview of it. The better you prepare yourself, the better the search will be and the more relevant the answers.

  • Dictionaries (e.g. MOT), encyclopedias, handbooks and textbooks can be a useful starting point in your research. They can help you define terms or provide a background information. Obtaining background information on your subject can provide you with a context for your research and help you narrow your focus.
  • Reading a general text or doing some browsing on the Internet can be also a helpful way of clarifying your thoughts.

With the topic and the questions to be answered you can identify the key concepts.

Concepts are essential

Concept is a general drift or idea of a thing or event. Break your topic into concepts, as basics as possible. This will help you to focus your search, gather possible search terms and formulate a search query.

There may be one or more search concepts. Depending on the search topic, you can define the key concepts and the supplemental concepts. The key concepts are the very essential core of the topic and the supplemental concepts help to outline the question.

It is a good idea to define the concepts at the beginning, in a very reduced and plain way. Doing so, their combining later doing searches is easy and flexible.

Example of defining concepts of a topic:

  • Topic: Heat treatment effects on wood surface quality
  • Main concepts: heat, treatment, wood, surface
  • Supplemental concept: quality, chemistry, mechanical, methods

Are any of the parts more important than others? What are the aspects you decide to focus on? These aspects will be your inclusion criteria and the aspects you don’t want to focus on will be your exclusion criteria. Keep them in mind, this will help you to evaluate search results later.

To Do:

  1. Formulate search questions
  2. Identify key and supplemental concepts
  3. Write down the aspects for inclusion and exclusion, if needed

Next page: Search terms