Stuck for search terms?

When you’ve typed in all the major words from you research into a journal database (e.g. JStor) and got precisely no hits, or into an archive search engine (e.g. The National Archives) and got only three records from the wrong century (and usually referring to hat-making), it can be quite depressing.

Even if there are some results, you will eventually reach the day where the only thing left is that paper about Wilson’s “white heat” speech and the Girl Guides which has been search-optimised really well. (No, I’m not joking – it’s a real paper).

Recently, I found myself searching around a topic similar to my undergraduate dissertation, and to my horror, found an annoyingly good paper which I really should have noticed at the time. To avoid embarrassment I won’t say what it is, but given the search terms I was using, it’s not surprising that it’s located on page 79 of a JStor search (between two articles about secondary education in the Cold War), and not entirely surprising that I missed it.

But it got me thinking. The search terms I used were rather particular and topic focused, whereas the paper I’ve only recently found is about vague concepts (of power and identity).  However, if I were to think about the things I actually write about (apart from specific rockets and stuff) it’s normally pretty vague too. It’s often quite hard, to come up with ideas about who your main actors really are (whether you spend more time slating one Minister of Defence or another) and what terms you use to discuss vague concepts.

Until today I thought the only way that I could do that was to sit in a darkened room in tortured silence, but as finding that article has proved, it’s clearly not 100% effective.

Sitting at my desk, reading this annoyingly good paper my eyes fell on the cover of my undergraduate dissertation, and I realised, I had been a tremendous fool.

There, in very large bold letters, is the one word of overlap between my standard search terms and the annoyingly good paper.

word cloud

In my undergraduate days making a Word Cloud went through a brief vogue, and because I could never be bothered to learn how to correctly attribute pictures, I used to make one at the end of my project to stick on the front cover and look smart.

For those of you who weren’t as much of a geek as I was, Word Clouds take all the words in any text, and re-size them in proportion to the number of times they are used. (Nowadays, things have moved on a bit with sites like Text is Beautiful, giving you Word Clouds, text webs and correlation wheels).

Realising that I might have missed things during my Masters which might be useful now, I turned to the cover of that (which due to laziness also had a Word Cloud), and began searching. This time, not one, but FOUR annoyingly good papers. How embarrassing.

Lesson learnt I now exhort you – spend an hour playing with a pretty Word Cloud, before it’s too late!

Post by Stuart Butler 


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