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Search methods & techniques: Search methods

Search methods - from snowball to cited reference search

There are different search methods to help you find the information you need.

These methods are:

  • Quick and dirty method

  • Snowball (or citation chaining) method

  • Cited reference method

The quick and dirty approach can be the first step in exploring a topic and gathering search terms specific to that topic. These could be author's names, words that appear in titles and abstracts and subject headings. To obtain more detailed information about a subject or find lots of information, you can use the snowball method. And when you want to find more recent publications on a topic, use the cited reference approach. 

Quick & dirty

If you want to get information in a hurry, or if you want a quick introduction to a topic, you can use the so-called quick and dirty method. This does not involve an extensive search profile, but a search with the aid of a limited number of search entry points. For example, you could search on keywords in titles, abstracts, reference works, and subject headings.

Start your quick and dirty search on the homepage of the University Library.

sEURch start on website University Library

Here you can search simultaneously within the catalogue and a large number of databases. Type a few search terms and click on the search button. Within seconds you'll be presented with a list of search results. You can refine the results using filters for publication date, language, format, author etc. Or select for full-text and peer-reviewed articles only.

If using the quick and dirty method as the first step in gathering search terms for a search profile, scan the abstracts and subject headings of the titles listed in your search results for search terms specific to your topic.

Tip: type your search terms letter for letter (i.e. slowly) in the basic search box in sEURch to get suggestions for search terms.

While typing in the search bar, sEURch offers a list of suggestions


Search for older publications

If you wish to obtain detailed information about a subject or find lots of information, you can use the snowball method. With this method you start your search with a key document. This could be a well known work or a highly praised article. A key document contains citations or references to other sources about the same subject. This leads to other documents that, in turn, include references, etc.

The drawback to this method is that you often get too much material and that you always find references to older documents.


Below are several references from the article 'Innovation in Public Management: Is Public E-Procurement a Wave of the Future? A Theoretical and Exploratory Analysis' by Parisa Haim Faridian in: International Journal of Public Administration, volume 38, Issue 9, pages 654-662 from 2015. These are references to articles from 2015 and older.

Example of the snowball method (Faridian article)

Cited reference

Search for newer publications

With this method, the search starts with a key document, as with the snowball method. First you look up the key document. In a citation database, such as Web of Science, each document record gives you bibliographical details, an abstract and a list of sources (references) that the author used. Linked to the record are a citation count, information about the author and a list of citing documents. It is therefore possible to find more recent publications on the topic and information about the authors of these papers.

Examples of when a cited reference search could be useful:

  • to find out the extent, by whom and in which journals a book or journal article has been cited
  • to get an overall picture of the progress of a specific research area or subject, based on an earlier key publication
  • to search for book reviews in journal articles
  • to find out which information resources colleagues used for their research. This is particularly useful for student researchers and researchers.

An example of a highly cited article (review):

A highly cited article in Web of Science:

Watch the videos in the Web of Science Core Collection - Cited Reference Searching Series (1.08 and 3.45) to get more information about the Cited Reference Search of Web of Science.