Nesting: Not just for the birds

When you hear the term ‘nesting’ it probably conjures up an adorable image of a little bird or animal building a home or caring for their young….

Nesting Season

Image by Pat Gaines. CC license here.

However, in the world of library research, this term means something different.  When we talk about ‘nesting’ as a search strategy it actually refers to the ability to search for multiple synonyms at once by enclosing them in parentheses and connecting them with the operator ‘OR’.

You can think of the parentheses as the little nests which hold your search terms.  How sweet.

Why Bother?

Aside from having a cute name, the real benefit of ‘nesting’ is that it allows you to search for the multiple ways a term could be described all in one go.  Since you cannot predict what language another author has used when writing about a given subject, searching for variants is a nice way to make sure you find all of the relevant materials.

For example, let’s say you are doing some research about the consequences of divorce for young children.  While it may be tempting to just use ‘consequences’ as a search term, it’s a good idea to brainstorm some of the other ways this term could be expressed.

In addition to thinking of exact synonyms, try to also consider related terms that might still return relevant results.

Here’s an example of a list I created after brainstorming some other ways to describe my initial search terms:

  • Effects
  • Reactions
  • Adjustment
  • Repercussions

Of course, you could likely think of many additional terms.  While we are keeping this example rather simple for the sake of demonstration, remember that you could also brainstorm and nest synonyms for your other search terms as well.

Translating your list into a database search

Once you’ve thought up some alternative terms, the next step is to carry out your search in the database of your choice.  When you nest terms in a library database using specific syntax, the database knows that you are looking for any one of those terms in order to bring back a matching result.

What’s the syntax? Enclose the terms in parentheses and separate them with the operator ‘OR’.  Here’s what I would do following the example above:

(consequences OR effects OR reactions OR adjustment OR repercussions)

If I want to add any other search terms, nested or not, I would connect those to the search by using the ‘AND’ operator, like so:

(consequences OR effects OR reactions OR adjustment OR repercussions) AND children AND divorce

It is almost like building a math equation.  Each piece of punctuation or operator indicates a very specific action to the database, telling it which articles are acceptable to return in your results list.

Sample Search in PsycARTICLES

Nesting terms is a great way to increase the number of results you find.  Let’s take a look at how this might play out in an actual database, like PsycARTICLES.

First, here is a screenshot of a search I conducted without nesting:

sample search no nesting

Click image to enlarge.

In this case, I searched for: divorce AND consequences AND children.  This search yielded 14 scholarly articles.

Next, I will build a search and nest the synonyms I brainstormed:

building a search string with nesting

Click image to enlarge

**Note, I chose to build my entire search in just one of the search boxes, in one long string (like a math equation).  If you prefer, you can use the boxes below to connect your additional terms with ‘AND’.

Here is a screenshot of the results page generated from this nested search:

results from nested search

Click image to enlarge.

You can see that by nesting some related terms I was able to find 160 more scholarly articles than in the previous search. The database has more opportunities to return a match since I gave it the flexibility to find one of a number of terms related to ‘consequences’.

If you were feeling particularly wild, you could also consider nesting some more specific language for the term ‘children’.  For instance, if you’re focused on “young children” you may want to do something like:

(“young children” OR toddlers OR preschoolers OR infants)

The fine print

As with all things, there are times nesting works better than others.  If you find that you are retrieving far too many results, consider eliminating one or two terms to see this how this changes what you find.

Likewise, if you nest many terms but all of your results tend to use the same one, this is probably a good indication that nesting those additional items is unnecessary.

As ever, Happy Searching!

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