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Public Administration -Basic Search Steps: Home

You can always make better decisions if you have solid information. Any time you are spending a substantial amount of money, or investing a significant amount of your time, you should think about what information you need to make a good decision and find a way to get that information. If you learn the basics of research, you can apply that knowledge to every important aspect of your life.

This guide will lay out basic research strategy in the context of providing a "class" on finding resources to write a paper in a university level public administration or political science class. 

Basic Search Steps:

  • Analyze your task - determine what specific information you need.
  • Identify the best place to search for that information. 
  • Identify key words and run your first searches.
  • Examine your search results.
    • Keep what is useful.
    • Analyze the search itself: how can you improve it to get a better result set?
    • Think about applying what you've found - develop new questions as necessary.




Search Step 1: Analyze your task - determine what specific information you need

Begin by determining what you need to find. To begin research for a class assignment, read the assignment. Note any requirements regarding topics, types of sources (peer reviewed, scholarly?), length, number of sources that should be in the bibliography, citation format, etc.

If you are free to choose your topic, think about what has interested you so far in the class. Look through your class notes and the textbook. There are some library resources that can help you find topics in the fields of political science and public administration:


  • Example: In CQ Researcher, I clicked on Browse Reports and opened the reports for 2020. I looked down the list and one was on Presidential Primaries. I wondered what controversy was discussed in this report, so I opened it and went to the Pros and Cons section. Donald Fowler wrote the "con" and began by discussing superdelegates. I thought that might be interesting to explore. You could go to any of the topics that look interesting to you and click through to the Pros and Cons to find an interesting question to research. CQ is NOT a peer-reviewed source. If my assignment specified that I need to use peer-reviewed sources, I would use CQ simply as a tool to help me develop topics. I will find peer-reviewed sources at another step in this process.
  • Example: On opening the Congressional Research Service link, I see a number of reports. At one point a political candidate said (of other people running for office) "Don't tell me your priorities. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you your priorities!" I always think of that when I see information on the appropriations bills. But I think that for this purpose, I will look at something else. There's a lot on inspectors general, but I already have a very firm opinion on them, so I think working on a paper on that topic would just make me angry. I might be interested in finding out more about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, or Faithless Electors (both reports on the first page). I open those reports and poke around a little. After skimming the reports, I'm interested in the topic of oil prices and of the electoral college. Remember, this exercise is just to get a start when I'm having trouble coming up with a topic. I think that either of those would be interesting topics. Congressional Research Service Reports are NOT peer-reviewed sources. If my assignment specified that I need to use peer-reviewed sources, I would use Congressional Research Service Reports simply as a tool to help me develop topics. I will find peer-reviewed sources at another step in this process.
  • A journal I like is PS: Political Science & Politics. I look that up in the Journals List and then examine the list of places I can access it. Many of the databases have the most recent year embargoed, Cambridge University Press Journals has the journal to the current issue. I'm just searching for topics, so older issues would be fine, but as long as I can get the current issue, I will. The April 2020 issue has an article that explores the question of whether or not the "Bush-Obama wars" cost Hillary Clinton the presidential election. It might be interesting to explore how Senator Clinton's voting record was covered in the press. (...and then I look further through the table of contents and see Embedding the New Information Literacy Framework in Undergraduate Political Science Courses - WOW!!!  Sorry, librarian rapture; you are probably not that interested. I will download it for me.)

Analyzing your topic: writing your research question

Once you have identified a few possible topics, think about what interests you and write out possible research questions.

Here are some examples:

  • Superdelegates - Often, once you have a subject to think about, you can generate tons of questions: Do superdelegates alter voter's perceptions of the fairness of the election? Do they absorb an inordinate amount of a candidate's time? Are there controversies over how they are selected? Etc. As you read the articles that you find, you will develop further questions. 
  • Oil Prices - is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve necessary for the nation's security?
  • Faithless Electors - should people sent to the Electoral College be bound to vote as their state voted?
  • What about the Electoral College generally? What if we just went with the popular vote?
  • How did voters feel about Hillary Clinton's votes on the war?
  • How do you plan for transportation for people who have been asked to evacuate an area due to a natural disaster?

As you can see, once you get started, it is difficult to stop. That's fine, having more than one topic at the beginning offers a chance to dump a topic that isn't working before you invest too much time in it.

Search Step 2: Identify the best place to search for that information.

If you choose a database that fits your subject you can run efficient and effective searches rather than spending a lot of time flailing around. For all of these topics, a Political Science or Public Administration database would be ideal. In the Choose a Database list of topics, choose either Political Science or Public Administration. 

To look for information on Superdelegates, I will try a political science database. 

To find information on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or on transportation under evacuation  I might prefer a public administration database.

Search Step 3: Identify key words and run your first searches

Example using "superdelegates."

There are a number of different ways you can begin. You can just start with what you know and the questions that you think up. Or you could look in a subject encyclopedia or some other reference source to gather some basic background information. (We already know that CQ Researcher has an article with Pros and Cons on superdelegates!) One way or another, put together a research question.

Example: Is it fair to have superdelegates?

Identify the keywords: fair superdelegates

Running my first search (in Worldwide Political Science Abstracts): fair and superdelegates finds nothing, zero results.

The step immediately after the search is to evaluate how well the search worked. Nothing...isn't good. So the search needs to be adjusted. I'm going to take it down to the most essential word and search that - superdelegates. This search found 20. (If it had found nothing, I would have tried  super delegates, in case it shouldn't be treated as one word. If that had found nothing I would have gone back to the CQ Pros and Cons to see if they are called something else. If that hadn't worked, I would have tried another database.)

This is the point at which I limit the results to peer-reviewed (it's a check-box on the left hand side of the screen). That leaves 18 search results. The third one's title is "Is the Democratic Party's superdelegate system unfair to voters" by Josh M. Ryan. I might read through that one first. 

Looking at the result set, I don't think that there are going to be enough that touch on the question of fairness to be successful in writing my paper. I'm going to collect what is useful, and try another database. I go to OneSearch (on the library's home page) and find many more. Again, I limit to peer-reviewed. 


Example using Strategic Petroleum Reserve:

Question: Is the Strategic Petroleum Reserve necessary for the nation's security?

Keywords: Strategic Petroleum Reserve      Security

Searching ABI/Inform: Strategic Petroleum Reserve and security

When I limit the results to peer-reviewed articles, 


Example using evacuation transportation:

Question: How do you plan for transportation for people who have been asked to evacuate an area due to a natural disaster?

Keywords: transportation (or transporting or transport or...)                                    evacuate (or evacuation or evacuating)

Searching ABI/Inform: transportation and evacuate

Truncation (also called stemming): Use the root word and let the system find it with any ending. For example evacuat* finds evacuate, evacuation, evacuated, evacuating, etc. (NOTE only use the "stem." If you search Evacuation* you will find Evacuation and Evacuations, but not evacuate, evacuating, etc. That final "ion" will block all other forms of the word.

Revised Search: transport* and evacuat*

The results of this search are not well-focused, I'm going to use Pearl Searching to move to subject terms.


Step 4: META-Analysis of search results

For the next several steps, you have TWO jobs as a researcher:

1) Gather useful articles

2) Analyze your search - continue to refine and improve it. 

With every results list, ask yourself:

  • Is this (first page) of results what I was hoping to find? If not:
    • Should I change my search terms?
    • Should I change the database I'm using?


  • If the first page of results is what I was hoping for, but there's too much to look through:
    • Should I focus by looking at only those from a certain time period?
    • Should I focus by utilizing subject terms from a useful article? (Pearl Searching)
    • After I look through a few articles is there an element that I'd like to add and focus on that aspect of the topic?


  • If the first page of results has an article of interest, but I need more articles
    • Are there alternate words or phrases that get at the same topic? (For instance, if I searched "death penalty" should I also search "capital punishment"?)
    • Are there any ways to re-phrase the search? (Remember that the database is just looking for a string of letters - it doesn't comprehend the search. (For instance, if I searched "religious freedom" maybe I should also search "freedom of religion".)
    • Can I "truncate" any terms? (Search the stem of the words with any endings. For instance religio* would find religion or religious.)




Pearl Searching - everything on your topic, nothing not on your topic

A database is put together by a publisher who purchases the entire collection of back issues to thousands of journals in the subject,, then hires scores of people to read through every article in every issue of every journal and attach "subject terms" to identify the subjects on which the article FOCUSES.

If you search those subject terms you can pull out everything that focuses on your topic. No need to scroll through pages of articles that barely mention it. 

Example: Research question: How do you plan for transportation for people who have been asked to evacuate an area due to a natural disaster?

Best place to search: Public Administration - try ABI/Inform

Design search: transport* and evacuat*

Review results: the first page has at least one article of interest, and the subject headings include "traffic" and "evacuation."

Try traffic and evacuation as a subject search: subject("Traffic") and subject("Evacuation")

Remember that if you do not find enough on your topic you can change your search terms or try another database.