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Search Skills for Art and Design Students

Need help with searching? Browse our user guide and short training videos for guidance on getting started and advancing your search skills.

Search Skills

Plan ahead
Planning your search will make researching your topic more effective and will save you time when locating relevant information for your assignments.

Think about how broad or narrow the scope of your research needs to be, and what type of assignment it is (eg: is it an essay, 1000 word report or final year dissertation?)

Take a few minutes to think about the following questions -

  • what are the key words defining your topic?
  • are there any alternative words you should use to ensure you don't miss something relevant?
  • what words would the researchers in your field use?

A single document can be a good jumping off point to start some background reading - has that author written anything else? Does your document have a reference list? - Are any of those references worth exploring?

If you don’t have a suitable document don’t worry. The next step is a basic search to identify some literature.

Conducting a scoping search

A scoping search is an initial search that you undertake at the start of a project. This doesn’t have to be thorough or systematic, it’s a fact-finding search to see what literature is out there and a chance to explore themes which may provide a focus for your research topic or help you refine your research question.

Begin your search by entering the keywords from your question into either OneSearch or Google Scholar. These tools allow you to discover different types of materials such as books and journal articles and will give you a good overview of the literature that exists on your topic.

Take a look at the abstract (the short description) for more information. Books will generally touch on broad topics and can be useful for background reading. Articles will usually cover very specific topics. Save articles that look useful or email yourself the link to the record.

What are academic sources?

The purpose of an academic or scholarly publication is to report on original research, disseminate knowledge in a paticular discipline or review the current literature on a topic. Scholarly materials include books, journal articles, book chapters and theses. You should use a variety of academic sources in your work.

The videos below will show you how to do some basic searching in OneSearch and the library catalogue.

Searching in OneSearch

A short introduction to doing a basic search in OneSearch. Learn how to narrow your results and access full text.

Searching the Library Catalogue

A short introduction to searching the library catalogue.


Search tips

All search engines work on the same principle: they retrieve information based on the keywords you put in. As a rule, the greater the number of words you can think of to describe a topic, the more hits you will get back. For your topic/question you should think of as many alternative terms as you can.

Break down your topic into keywords

A good approach is to break down your topic or question into different parts. What are the key elements?

Consider the essay question 'Does fast-fashion undermine ethical retail?'

Firstly identify the main concepts.

Concept 1 is fast-fashion and concept 2 is ethical retail.

Identify synonyms and similar terms: 

If you do a search with just these two terms you run the risk of missing out on valuable material, so you need to expand your search. Finding other words which are similar and adding these to your search strategy is a way of doing this.

It's a good idea to enter these terms into a table. This will help when you come to enter these terms into a database.


Fast Fashion


Ethical Retail

Cheap fashion Ethical consumption
Primark Business ethics
Sweat shops Fair trade
  Green consumerism
  Corporate ethics


Where do I search?

To ensure that you are finding the most relevant literature, you should use the library's specialised resources. You can find a list of these under 'Databases' on the home page of this subject guide. There are also thousands of print resources in the library, which are fantastic for visual research.

Search tips

Use these useful tips to make your search more effective;

  Most databases use  AND / OR / NOT to structure a search.

  • OR expands search results = more results e.g. teenager OR youth
  • AND limits search results = less results e.g.  teenager AND youth
  • NOT (or AND NOT) limits search results    e.g. teenager NOT youth

  Phrase searching - use quotation marks around a group of words to mean a phrase, e.g.: "climate change."

  Wildcards - (symbols e.g. * ?). These represent ways of finding different variations and spellings, e.g.:

  • photo* will find photos, photograph(s), photographic, photographer(s), etc.,

  Alternative spellings - try both or use wildcards as above, e.g.:

  • UK English: organisation / US English: organization (Search: organi?ation)
  • UK English: programme / US English: program   (Search: program*)

  Some words / phrases can appear with or without hyphens, e.g. multi-media or multimedia.

  Limit your search - limit by date, language, format or type of publication, only subscribed resources, etc.

JSTOR Text Analyzer

JSTOR's Text Analyzer lets you search, not with keywords, but by uploading a document to help you discover relevant content quickly and easily.

Conducting an advanced search in OneSearch

OneSearch is a great tool for finding research but with so much available it can sometimes be hard to find exactly what you need. Advanced searching can really help focus your search. The techniques in this video can be used in all databases.

Building search skills with JSTOR

This video highlights several features of JSTOR that help you to build search skills and craft better research strategies, including JSTOR’s Basic and Advanced Search and Text Analyzer.

No access to a PDF or to the full text?

Look for the 'Find it @ Brighton' link in the database to see if we have access to the article via another source. If full text is available you will see a link to the 'Article'.

No online access?

Search the library catalogue for printed material. Select Periodical or Serial in the library catalogue results.

No access in print or online?

Request an Interlibrary loan.

Why do you need to evaluate information?

Your ability to evaluate and critique a variety of sources is important in achieving good marks for your assignments. The world is full of misinformation and disinformation and your ability to evaluate information critically is a crucial transferable skill that will be valued by your future employers.

There are different evaluation criteria you can use to evaluate information. One of these is the CRAAP test. CRAAP stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. It is explained in more detail on this guide and in the video below.


  • Currency: This applies to the timeliness of the information. When was the information published?
  • Relevance: How the information fits your needs. Look at the introduction / abstract / summary – what does it cover?
  • Authority: The source of the information. Is the author clearly identified? Are they credible?
  • Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content. Has the information been reviewed by scholars in the field?
  • Purpose: The reason the information exists. Is it intended to teach, inform, sell?

Why reference?

Referencing is the method of acknowledging the sources you have used while writing your assignment. It is an extremely important part of academic writing as it shows where your ideas have come from and gives credit to the authors whose work you have read.

By referencing properly you can avoid plagiarism, which is the passing off of other people's ideas as your own.

What is a reference?

reference also known as a citation - is an exact note of the source of a piece of information that you have referred to either directly or indirectly in your text. A typical reference or citation would include the following elements:

  • journal article - author / year of publication / title of the article / journal title /  volume, part, page nos.      
  • book - author/editor / year of publication / title / place of publication / publisher    

Online sources also need to include the URL and the date accessed.

References need to be cited in two places –

  •  in an abbreviated form in the text  - in-text citation
  •  in full at the end of your work - reference list

bibliography is a list of all the sources you have consulted but not necessarily referred to in your work.

Referencing is explained in more detail in the video below, but please refer to the referencing guidelines in your Student Handbook for full guidance as your course may use a different referencing style.


A short introduction to referencing.


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