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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

  • Using headings and subheadings as filters

  • Cited reference method

  • Author search

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. To only find the references on the topic you are interested in from a bibliography, use the headings and subheadings as filters. When you want to find more recent publications on a topic, use the cited reference approach. And when you have found one paper that fits your research use the author search to find more by the same author.

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)

Using headings and subheadings as filters

The Snowball method can be a time-consuming task, and you are likely to get far too many references, more than you can even look through. There is an easier way though to cut through all the references in a bibliography, and that is to use the headings and subheadings in the article or chapter as filters.

The references found in an article or book chapter aren’t random. The author(s) has carefully curated the references and used them when they are needed. This means that the author(s) has already sorted the references for you by topic or subject, and all you need to do is look at the headings and subheadings to help you find articles and books on that topic.

Let’s say that you are writing a paper on the use of opium throughout history, and you want to include a discussion about ancient opium. You come across the article, “Opium trade and use during the Late Bronze Age,” and here, you can use the headings and subheadings to help you find the type of articles and books you are looking for. If you want to find general articles and books that you need at the beginning of your research, it is best to look under the first few headings such as the “Introduction” or “History of research.” In this case, to find those basic background articles in this particular article, you would look in the “Introduction” and “Opium in history and archeology” sections of the article.

If you want more information about how they tested for opium, look under the “Methods” section which has references for the standard procedures used to test ancient vessels, and in this case it is under the subheading of "Lipid extraction." Or to find references about competing theories to the one that the author(s) has presented, check in the “Discussion” and “Conclusion” sections.

This method can be applied to any article or book chapter, and it can save you time. Rather than going through each and every reference in the bibliography, use the headings and subheadings as a guide to get you the references you actually need.

Linares, V., Jakoel, E., Be’eri, R., Lipschits, O., Neumann, R., & Gadot, Y. (2022). Opium Trade and use During the Late Bronze Age: Organic Residue Analysis of Ceramic Vessels from the Burials of Tel Yehud, Israel. Archaeometry, (20220712).

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.

Search by author

Chances are, if you have found a good paper on the topic of your research, that the author or authors have written other papers on the same subject. In sEURch, Scopus, Google Scholar, and most journals and databases you can look up work by specific authors generally through the “advanced search” section as seen here in sEURch by changing the search parameter in the dropdown menu.

There is a much easier way though, which is simply to click on the name of the author underneath the book or article title that you found. As an example, we can look up the article, “Local Government Performance and the Challenges of Regional Preparedness for Disasters” by Brian J. Gerber and Scott E. Robinson to find more work by the main author, and we will start in sEURch.

In sEURch, if you click on the name of the author under the title, this will take you to a list of books or articles written by that author, though sometimes authors of the same name might sneak into the list, and you need to watch out for that.

In Google Scholar, as long as an author’s name is underlined in green, you can click on their name to be taken to a page showing all articles or books indexed in Google Scholar written by that author.