If you need help, please contact Jenna Walsh, Indigenous Initiatives Librarian & Librarian for Indigenous Studies, Archaeology, Environmental Science, and Resource & Environmental Management at 778-782-9378 (voicemail) or jmwalsh@sfu.ca or Ask a librarian.

Search Process

Define your research question

Begin by analysing your research question to determine what kind of information you need to support your discussion. For example, if you were writing a paper on ecotourism, you would find much information so you would need to put some limiters on the scope of your research.

Decide on the following parameters:

  • Main subject
  • Currency (in the last year, historical, event happened in a specific year)
  • Geographic (Canadian, American, European, combination)
  • Perspective (legal, social, political, environmental, economic, etc.)
  • Types of information (statistics, scholarly research articles, opinion from web sites, news articles, case studies)
  • Important aspects of the topic, e.g.  names of significant people or organizations

Some of this topic defining may happen while you’re searching but it can make the process faster if you think about your topic before you begin.


The REM 100 term paper, you are to discuss your topic from an environmental and social sciences perspective. To capture enough relevant information about social impacts of a global issue, you may have to do some brainstorming. For example:

  • What are some of the specific ways that people in a society might be affected? 
  • Will it affect the level of employment in their community?
  • Does it affect people's incomes or standard of living?
  • Does it affect their health? 
  • Has it had an impact on the culture of a community? 
  • Are there aspects of the topic that affect certain groups of people within a society, such as women, native peoples, or the elderly?
  • Are there specific industries that are affected? 
  • Will your topic cause people to migrate from rural to urban communities or from one part of the country to another?

You may also wish to consult the books and magazines located in the offices of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SF PIRG) aka SF P!RG.  SFP!RG is a student organization dedicated to working for social and environmental change. The people who work or volunteer for SF P!RG are helpful and are a good source of  ideas. They're located above traffic and security next to convocation mall.  Their telephone number is (778) 782-4360.

Brainstorm terminology

Once you have defined your research question, break it down into CONCEPTS or KEYWORDS. Think of SYNONYMS for each idea.

If my term is ecotourism in Canada as a way of supplying jobs to people in a dying forestry industry, my concepts, keywords and synonym list might start like this:

ecotourism Canada forestry jobs
tourism Canadian logging employment
sustainable tourism British Columbia / BC primary resources economics
  Vancouver Island forest industry  
  rainforests forest sector  

To find sources that provide you with a perspective on environmental aspects of your topic, use keywords such as:

  • environmental aspects
  • environment
  • sustainable
  • sustainability
  • conservation

To find sources that give you a social sciences perspective on your topic, combine your topic keywords with terms such as:

  • social aspects
  • social conditions
  • community
  • social impacts
  • employment
  • health
  • migration
  • women or children
  • native or aboriginal or indian

Select search tools

Searching for information on a topic can require a surprising amount of creativity. One common error is to restrict the search to only certain formats (e.g. books and articles) when other sources might be equally useful to your research -- statistics, government reports, etc.

The purpose of the following chart is to help you think about:

  • the types of information which exist
  • the sources where they can be found
  • and the library research tools which will help you access them.

The list is far from exhaustive, so study it and then spend a few minutes thinking about what might help you in your research.

Type of information Format or source where you will likely find it Library research tool
introductory information and overviews directories, encyclopedias, handbooks Subject research guides list the main reference texts
Or search for one in the Library catalogue
course readings Reserves collection
recent books Library catalogue
in-depth studies books Library catalogue
government reports

Canadian Research Index
Government web sites (see the guide on research with Gov't Resources)

association and institute reports Library catalogue, web sites
academic journals Article indexes
research, analysis, discussion academic journals Article indexes
conference proceedings or collections of papers Library catalogue
some Article indexes
current issues, case studies newspapers, magazines Article indexes


Power searching techniques

When using databases, such as the Library catalogue and the article indexes, you can use the following techniques to improve the relevancy of your results. Ideally, you should capture most documents that are significantly about your topic, without missing really key information and not having to wade through hundreds of records to find a good one.

Search tools such as the Library catalogue and article indexes differ from web search engines in significant ways. For example, search results in most article indexes are listed according to the date of publication, not the relevancy to the search terms, as they are with Google.

**TIP**  When searching electronic sources (index databases, the web), be aware that computers operate on a literal basis. For example, if you search for "Canada", you will not pick up records that use "Canadian" instead. Your search term must exactly match words used in the information source.
When you search the Library catalogue or article indexes, use TRUNCATION symbols to find all variations of a term. "$, ?, *, !" are common truncation symbols. 
* is used in most searches, e.g. Canad* will pick up Canada, Canadian, Canadesis

BOOLEAN OPERATORS allow you to combine terms to narrow or broaden your database searches.

AND requires BOTH terms to be found in search results (use this for finding two or more concepts)
OR requires EITHER term to be found in search results (use this for finding synonyms)
NOT eliminates term(s) from search results (be careful, you may eliminate worthwhile articles with NOT)

Start with a keyword search to locate records with your term embedded in them.

Using synonymns and subject headings or descriptors in your searching increases your chance of finding relevant information.

Be careful of spelling or transliteration. Most databases use American spelling but you should try both versions, e.g. globalization/globalisation. Consider whether there may be variations for acronyms or initialisms used for names of organizations or countries.

Then, look at the subject headings or descriptors used in relevant records to find words that are used in that database to identify articles on that topic. If an article database provides a thesaurus or subject heading list, use it to identify the specific subject terminology used by that source. Often there will be a thesaurus or other subject heading list to let you identify these terms or you can look at the descriptors used in relevant records.

As you search the databases, note new terms that describe your topic. Different academic disciplines may use different terminology to describe a topic.

Different aspects of a topic may be captured by several terms. For example, the SFU Library Catalogue uses the subject term "parks" but other books can be found under the subject headings "recreation areas" and "wilderness areas"


Find books

Library Cataloue search guide 

Library Catalogue Search Guide (finding books)

Begin by searching the Library catalogue to discover if SFU has any recent books, conference proceedings or reports on your topic.  You can search for books on a specific topic by doing a subject search or searching for keywords in the record.

Suggested search strategies for the Library catalogue:

Start with a KEYWORD search and look at the SUBJECT HEADINGS in relevant records for specific books.  Use the subject heading hypertext links in the catalog records to follow your leads.

Modify your search terms as you search the catalogue and become aware of new terms to describe your topic. Look at the subject headings or descriptors used.  For example, the SFU Library catalogue sometimes uses the term "acid rain" but other books can be found under the subject heading "acid pollution of rivers, lakes, etc.".

ALWAYS check the references (books, articles and other documents that the author used when researching the book) that will be found at the end of books, or at the end of chapers in books, or at the end of journal articles. These can lead you to additional sources of information on your topic.

Example Topics


For Books, use  "advanced keyword" search in the Library catalogue

1. Energy use in Developed and Developing countries

Energy and industrial* and developing and countr*

Examples of Subject headings in Library catalogue: (To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu.)

Energy Consumption -- 2 Related Subjects
Energy consumption
Energy consumption -- Canada
Energy consumption -- Developing countries
Energy consumption -- Social aspects
Energy Conservation -- 10 Related Subjects
Energy Policy -- 4 Related Subjects

2. Population policies in China or India

population and (policy or policies) and china
population and (policy or policies) and india

Examples of Subject headings in Library catalogue: (To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu.)

Birth Control -- China
Birth control -- Government policy -- China
China -- Population
China -- Population Policy
Birth control -- Government policy -- India
Birth control -- India
India -- Population
India -- Population Policy
Population -- Environmental aspects -- India

3. Globalisation and the Environment

globali* and environm*

Examples of Subject headings in Library catalogue:
Globalization -- Environmental Aspects

4. Ecofeminism: Issues and Debates


Examples of Subject headings in Library catalogue:
Eco Feminism -- See Ecofeminism
Here are entered works on feminist theory that emphasizes the interdependence of all living things and the relationship between social oppression and ecological domination.
Ecofeminism -- See Also Women and the environment

Women In Agriculture -- 4 Related Subjects
Women Agricultural Laborers -- 3 Related Subjects

5. Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugee*  or climate refugee* or ecological refugee*

Examples of Subject headings in Library catalogue: (To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu.)

Environmental refugees -- Legal status, laws, etc
Environmental Justice

Find articles

Finding journal articles guide

Guide: Finding Journal Articles
For further suggestions, see the full list of REM databases.

What is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal?

Articles in academic journals are a valuable source of information.  They usually provide information on very specific aspects of a topic.  They do not usually provide basic or background information.

To learn more about the different types of articles, see "What is a Scholarly Journal?".

Use the SFU Library catalogue to check if we have a subscription to a specific journal. However, the library catalogue doesn't include citations or references for articles within journals.  To find articles on a specific topic, use a journal index or database.

Indexes to journals exist in all subject areas. You can start with a general index but often you’re better off with a specialized index for your subject. Virtually no subject is limited to a single database.  Many databases may provide coverage of more than one subject but from varying perspectives.

These indexes are available from the alphabetical list of databases (select "Article indexes and databases" from the Library Home page under "Research tools". All of them are available within the Library, and most can also be accessed from home.

Use these article indexes to search for articles on global change topics, primarily from a social sciences perspective:

Environment Complete Indexes over 1,900 environmental journals, with fulltext access to about 750. Also available is fulltext access to over 200 monographs.
Humanities and Social Sciences Major English language research journals in the humanities & social sciences, covering a wide range of topics, including geography, development studies, environmental studies, policy sciences and planning and public administation
GEOBASE Citations and abstracts for articles in physical and human geography, ecology and development studies
Sociological Abstracts Citations and abstracts for articles on sociology and social policy
BioOne  Fulltext articles, from the BioOne organization, covering biological, ecological and environmental sciences. From 2000 to current.
Web of Science Multidisciplinary index of scholarly journals
Project MUSE Search
and  JSTOR 

Fulltext articles for humanities and social science journals. In Advanced Search box for Project Muse, mark the box for "JSTOR" backfiles, to search both databases at once.

Academic Search Premier General index with an American focus; includes scholarly and popular articles
Alternative Press Index Cites articles in alternative, radical, and left publications
Business Source Complete Full text articles in business & economics, including international coverage
CBCA Complete Major index for Canadian newspapers, popular and business magazines and scholarly journals; provides coverage of Canadian topics, including business, politics, history and news events


Covers agriculture and allied disciplines

Suggested search strategies for article indexes:

  • Do a keyword search for your topic and look at relevant citations for a subject heading or descriptor to use.
  • Broaden your results by looking for synonyms, broader, narrower or related terms. You can combine a search for related terminology by using OR between the terms, for example, "ecotourism OR sustainable tourism OR environmental tourism"
  • Narrow down your results by using a limiting feature or adding another concept to your search.  For example, instead of searching for "ecotourism", you could search for "ecotourism AND Canada" or "ecotourism AND wildlife".
  • Use the Where can I get this? link in database records to see if SFU Library has the journal being cited, in print and/or electronic form.   If SFU doesn't have a subscription to the journal in question, you can make an Interlibrary Loan request but allow 1-2 weeks for delivery

Find websites

The web can be a valuable addition to your arsenal of information resources, giving you access to information that may not be accessible in other forms, such as reports & position papers from foreign government reports, research institutes, non-governmental organizations, activists and industry associations.

Evaluating Web Resources 


Anyone can publish on the Web so you should critically evaluate all information you find for:

  • Accuracy – You may want to cross-check statistics and facts against other sources
  • Authority - What are the qualifications and reputation of the writer/speaker/publisher? Are they experts in their field? What is their point of view?
  • Completeness - Is the information presented complete or does it seem that something might be missing?
  • Currency – Is the information up-to-date?
  • Documentation - Does the book/journal/Web page explain the sources of its information and how the information was obtained?
  • Level - Who is the intended audience for the information? Is the level of treatment academic or popular, expert or novice?
For more information, see the guide "Evaluating Web Sites". example#3

Find websites for government agencies, research centres, NGOs and industry associations

Environmental gateway sites

Also, check out the links on the main "Resource and Environmental Management Information Resources" library web page.

Track your citations

As you find information sources to use for your paper, you need to make sure to capture all the information you need to cite this information within the text of your paper and in your list of references (also known as a bibliography).

SFU Library provides guides to citation styles for APA, Chicago and MLA, linked from the top of our writing guides page. This provide you with basic information for formatting citations for different types of information resources (books, articles, web sites, etc.), along with examples. If you need help finding how to cite unusual sources, check with the Reference Librarians who will help you find the answer in more detailed sources.

Use software such as Zotero to manage your bibliographies:

Citation Management Software