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Useful resources for 4th year biology thesis students at UTSC.

Workshop FAQ F23

Search Strategies  

Would finding professors/authors in the field and searching their work be a viable method? 

Yes, that’s a great search strategy, especially as you might know of experts in the field. Just add the authors last name, first name in the search box and from the drop down menu select author instead of anywhere and it’ll search for articles written by them. Note, there may be more than one person with that name so you may search by ORICID.

Here’s an example of searching by author in the drop down menu in the Library Search. Learn more at: 

If your search results are too narrow, how do you determine which parameters of synonyms should be removed in order to broaden your search results?

If my topic isn’t really researched well, how do I find more references without broadening my search and losing the specificity of my search?

How might we broaden our parameters if there’s only one paper found on our species? (if we need papers/publications on our species specifically)

If you find one paper there are different strategies to find more resources.

Look at the cited by to see who has cited this article since it was published, or the reference list to find other related article.

Or just broaden the search entirely and just search your species name (“common name OR scientific name”) as the only search concept/keyword, and see what articles mention your species. You can also do a similar search and from the drop down menu instead of anywhere change it to document title.  That means the article has to have the species name in the title, so it’s more likely to be about the species instead of just mentioning it. When you have your results page, then try using the search within search bar on the left sidebar to refine the search further.  

Another strategy, if you recall, try more than one search database. If you get one result in BIOSIS, try Scopus, try Library Search, try Google Scholar, etc. Always search at minimum 3 places as each database has a different set of journals it is searching.


What if the questions are too specific but if you make the search more general it isn’t relevant anymore?

As above, try searching the species name to remain specific. Then use the search within to find how much more specific you can get. The answer above applies.

How do I create longer and more specific search queries without losing too much information?

Longer search strategies doesn’t mean better. Being more specific also doesn’t mean better results. It’s a matter of adjusting your search based on the results and trying different ways of searching. The answer above applies to this answer too.

My search comes up as 0 results, should I just reduce the keywords or search them separately?

If you get 0 results, just try your species as the search term, or the main concept as the only search term. Then try the search within. The answer above also applies.


Do I need to add asterisks * in my search like suggested on some databases?

No. However, asteriks is a common truncation (or way of searching) that you use on words to find different variations of that word. So for example, Canada, the root of the word is Canad, add an asterik so search Canad* and that will search Canada, Canadian, Canadians.  Here’s a link from the BIOA01 guide that will tell you more about truncation.  

What is the third operator?

Another operator not mentioned during class is NOT. Not excludes a term. You can watch this video from the course library guide to learn more about the three main operators AND, OR and NOT.

How do I determine keywords and synonyms when I'm not always aware of them?

Good question. A few ways include:

Background research – using google, and wikipedia to help determine the main concepts

Write your topic – then highlight the main concepts, search for synonyms or related term. For example, species name vs. Family name.

When you search in a database and have some results, look to somewhat or related articles, and look at the Abstract/Details to see what keywords the article or database uses to describe the article. You can get many ideas of keywords this way. I will note, your first search is likely not going to be your best search, but by trying different keywords, and discovering other keywords from other articles you eventually start building a a search that finds you better results.

How does advanced search work? Is there a difference in the boolean operators?

No difference in Boolean operators. Here are some tips on advanced searching in LibrarySearch and Web of Science.


Evaluating Articles

Is it better to use an article with higher times cited?

Times cited means how many times the article was cited by another research article. So, if an article is cited a lot by other authors, then it does imply some significance. Notes, times cited in Web of Science is based on what is within the WoS collection versus times cited anywhere and everywhere. Whether it is better to use an article with higher times cited really depends, if it’s relevant to your topic, if the author is a known researcher in that area of the topic, why they were cited by others, what about the research is important and how it relates to your topic.

What should be the currency of the article? Should I use an article based on when it was published?

This depends. Currency can be important in the sciences if you want up to date information on a particular topic/field. However, in the sciences if you are researching a topic that is well known, studied and is more established as a topic, then the articles might be older as they contextualize when that topic was being researched. Context matters.

Does BIOSIS only show peer-reviewed articles?

Yes BIOSIS helps you to research articles that are peer-reviewed. See the database page for more information on the collection


Is there a quick way to check the credibility of the journal in the database search results?

Similar to above, if you are using BIOSIS, Web of Science, or Scopus then credibility is not an issue as you are searching high impact peer-reviewed journals already. If you find an article through other means, I suggest you use Ulrich our journal directory to check to see if the journal is peer-reviewed. You can view the course guide page on Peer-Reviewed Journals for more information on using Ulrich.

Are pre-prints credible sources and how do you evaluate them? 

This depends on the journal and how you found it. Remember pre-prints are articles or preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed and edited yet. They should not guide clinical practice or health-related behaviour. You may discover preprints for biology in bioRxiv and learn more at the BIOC35 library guide. If you found a preprint, check instead to see if you can find the published final version of the article through Library Search. You would evaluate a pre-print similarly to how you would a published scholarly article. Consider, scope, authority, objectivity, accuracy, and currency. You'll find some helpful questions to ask when evaluating an article in the course guide.

If it’s subjective what/how should we judge whether we can use a preprint article?



There were several questions on Zotero.

Zotero is an excellent choice to use to help you manage citations, organize and cite papers.

There is an upcoming Zotero workshop on October 17 you can attend at Robarts on how to get started with using Zotero.

You can also use the Zotero library guide to help you get started.

Zotero can also help you with citing in CSE style. The guide has more information on how to add this style to Zotero.


There were a few questions on CSE.

Please confirm with your supervisor on what style of citation is recommended to use. You can go to the course guide to find links to CSE Style Citation guides.

Workshop FAQs

Literature Searching

Q: How do I conduct a search for relevant / cohesive articles and subsequently filter for good / bad papers?
A: The best thing you can do for yourself here is to develop a strong search that applies proper limits / filters in order to weed out unnecessary "noise" from your search results. While this requires more set-up in the beginning, it will save you time later on when you need to start actually sorting through papers.

Once you've created a good search and applied filters for things like empirical journal articles, you can then skim the list of results and identify potentially relevant articles from a title / abstract scan. Next, read through the full-text of selected studies, paying particular attention to key sections such as the Introduction, Methods, and Results. The Reading Articles page has critical evaluation tips and PDF links for questions you can ask as you read through each section of a journal article.


Q: What are some other search operators?
A: The main search operators available in most databases are AND, OR, and NOT, which allow you to combine or exclude terms from your search. Many will also allow you to use symbols for truncation, character replacement, and phrase searching, but keep in mind that the specific symbols used vary from database to database.

The following video gives a broad overview of how these search tools work:


Q: How does MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) work?
A: Medical Subject Headings are index terms that get applied to describe the key content of articles in biomedical databases like PubMed and MEDLINE. I've added a page on Searching PubMed and Searching MEDLINE, both of which include videos on using MeSH in their respective database.


Q: How do you do a search to filter clinical-based and basic science research?
A: Some databases such as PubMed and MEDLINE allow you to filter by various study types, so I'd recommend checking for those first:

screenshot of PubMed's article types filter

If these filters are not available, the next step would be to add keywords to your search which might capture the specific type of research you're interested in and AND-ing those terms with the other concepts in your research topic.


Q: Is it better to do a literature review through a website (e.g. University of Toronto Libraries, which combines different resources), or to use a particular database (e.g. Web of Science)?
A: I usually recommend starting with individual databases, since many of these resources provide specific search options that broader tools such as Google Scholar or the library website do not. That's not to say don't use these broader tools, but just be aware of some of their key limitations:

  • They often produce waaaay too many results, which makes it hard to be strategic about how you review/select studies.
  • They don't cover everything and will not "tap into" the full depth of scientific literature (many of which can only be found in specific databases such as Web of Science).
  • They don't guarantee materials have been peer-reviewed, which creates an additional step for your research using tools like Ulrich's. By contrast, many databases either have peer review filters you can apply or come pre-equipped with only peer-reviewed literature (such as Web of Science).


Q: How can I find more research on Google / Google Scholar?
A: Check out the Web Resources page for general tips on web searching. The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) also has a succinct guide on Google / Google Scholar search tips.

If you're planning to do research through Google Scholar, it may also be helpful to link up the search engine to U of T's journal subscriptions so that you can access article full-text. Instructions for this are available on the Google Scholar page. Keep in mind that articles obtained from Google Scholar aren't guaranteed to be peer-reviewed, so it's good practice to double-check in Ulrich's Periodicals Directory (see the Peer-Reviewed Journals page for full instructions).


Q: Can we get access to these resources if not affiliated with U of T / what about alumni access?
A: Unfortunately this is tricky, as many resources such as electronic databases are only accessible through the U of T network / your UTORid and password. Here are some suggested workarounds:

Online resources:

  • If you'll be local to the Toronto area after you graduate, a number of U of T libraries have public access computers that will allow you to access electronic books, journals, databases, etc. For the UTSC Library specifically, you can request a guest login at our Information and Reference Desk for use at our public access computers at the front of the library.
  • Our Reading, Writing, and Publishing after you leave U of T guide provides a number of other resources that may be useful. I'd recommend checking out the Open Access page in particular, as it outlines various search tools and subject repositories for open access materials.

Physical resources:

  • Most U of T libraries allow you to openly browse through their physical book stacks (except for the Robarts Library downtown). If you are interested in borrowing physical materials, there are several types of alumni library cards available for purchase at the Robarts Library.


Citation Styles & Citation Management

Q: How to use different styles of referencing and when they are applicable?
A: Different subject disciplines typically use certain citation styles, so I'd recommend talking to your supervisor to see if a specific citation style is needed for your course. UTSC's writing support also offers a number of handouts for various citation styles, viewable on their Using and Citing Sources page.


Q: For scholarly articles that already provide a citation, are they accurate?
A: This can be a useful starting point, but it's always important to double-check the provided citation against whatever guidelines your specific citation style uses.


Q: What is the convention for citing a source within a source (i.e. secondary sources)?
A: You will need to check the specific rules of whatever citation style you are using for your paper, but most will generally have some sort of "as cited in" allowance. Keep in mind that secondary sources should only be used if you're unable to find the original source and that they also rely on another author's interpretation of that original source, making them subject to bias.


Q: Where can I learn more about other citation management software?
A: Check out U of T's Citation Management guide as well as our comparison table of popular software. There are also software-specific guides on the following tools: