• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Tools Researching a Problem Page 2

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Defining Your Problem

You will greatly reduce the time spent searching for information if you tightly define your problem. Let us say that you are dealing with a rash of vehicle-related thefts in your town. An Internet search on "car theft" could yield hundreds of "hits" or sources. It would take too long to scan through all these sources to find the ones most relevant to your particular problem. It is like a crime investigation with too many suspects, not too few! So it is important that you focus more tightly. What kind of car theft are you dealing with: Is it both thefts of cars and from cars, or is it just theft of cars? Try to focus on the largest component of your problem. If it is theft of cars, where are these cars being stolen—from the downtown area, from the suburbs or from university campuses? If from downtown, are most of the thefts from the street or from parking lots? If from parking lots, are these public or private, or from surface lots or decks. And so on.

Making your search too narrow (for example, "joyriding thefts from downtown lots at night,") might yield no useful literature because nobody has undertaken a study on precisely this topic. So even if this defines your problem exactly, you might have to broaden your search a little to find some relevant literature. For example, searches for "car thefts from parking lots" or "juvenile joyriding" might yield articles or reports that begin to help you understand your problem and begin to suggest some possible responses, even if most of what you find is not directly relevant.

There are few firm rules about defining your problem to make your search efficient, though it is usually best to begin with a tight definition and broaden this progressively until you have begun to find relevant material.

Formulating Search Terms

Having defined your problem clearly, you will then need to formulate a search term for use in searching online databases and website search boxes for relevant material. Make a list of words that come to mind when you think of your topic. These will be the "keywords" that you use for your search term. In doing this, think about words with similar or identical meanings. Think also about alternative spellings, especially British spellings ("behaviour" instead of "behavior," "organisation" instead of "organization," etc).

Your search will probably be an evolving process. You may need to revise your search term as you find out more about your topic. Keep a record of your search terms (with words or phrases exactly as entered), the name of the databases that you used, and the date of your search. Don't waste time figuring out the same thing twice!

Sometimes a search can be overly general (which results in too many hits) or overly specific (too few hits). To fine-tune your search, you can use: (1) phrases, (2) Boolean operators, and (3) truncation symbols:

  • Phrases. Phrase searching is searching for words adjacent to each other (e.g., automobile theft; problem-oriented policing; crime prevention). Searching for phrases is a powerful technique for focusing precisely on the topic you want, because it excludes records with separated and irrelevant keywords. Not all electronic resources, however, support phrase searching.
  • Boolean operators. You can use AND, OR and NOT (sometimes called Boolean operators) to link your search words together (use capitals for these operators). These will help you narrow or broaden your search to retrieve the information you need quickly.
    • Using AND: If you have a search term that is too general, you can append several terms together using AND (e.g., police AND prevention AND burglary). By stringing key terms together, you can further define your search and reduce the number of results.
    • Using NOT: To narrow a search, you can link words together by using NOT (e.g., burglary NOT robbery). This will help you to filter out specific topics you do not wish included as part of your search.
    • Using OR: To broaden a search, you can link synonyms together by using OR (e.g., cars OR automobiles OR vehicles). Linked by this operator, your words are searched simultaneously and independently of each other. When using both OR and AND in a search, use parentheses to enclose the words you are linking with OR. Examples would be:
      • burglary AND (police OR law enforcement), and
      • (juveniles OR teenagers) AND joyriding.
  • Truncation symbols: Most databases allow use of a truncation symbol that is used to pick up words with variant spellings. The most commonly used symbols are * and ?. For example: burglar* will find burglar, burglars, burglary and burglaries.

The websites listed in the next section (and many others) have a search box, usually on the home page, which helps you find relevant material quickly. In some cases, the search box comes with a tutorial or specific instructions in its use, which you should always read.

Refining Your Search

As you begin to search, you may find that you are getting either too many hits (your search is too broad) or too few (your search is too narrow). In these cases you will want to broaden or narrow your search.

Broadening Your Search
  • Try using synonyms and think of keywords that are more general.
  • Try using fewer keywords. The more words you use, the more specific you become, and the fewer number of hits you will get. If you use fewer keywords your focus is widened, and you should get more hits.
  • If you do need to search using a number of words, search them individually (or possibly in pairs) first.
  • Use the "or" operator and truncation * symbol.
  • Use lower case, even for proper nouns. This will broaden your search.
Narrowing Your Search
  • Be more specific. Evaluate your keywords and synonyms. Can you use more specific words to describe your topic?
  • Capitalize when appropriate. Some search engines are case sensitive. Use appropriate capitalization when you need to focus your search precisely.
  • Use AND. The Boolean operator "and" will limit your search to only those occurrences that include both terms, not just one or the other.
  • Use phrases.
  • Try using NOT. The Boolean operator "not" narrows the search by excluding certain words.

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