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Tip: Understanding Rank

PEP-Web Tip of the Day

When you do a search, you can sort the results bibliographically alphabetical or by “rank”. What is Rank?

Rank refers to the search engine’s “best guess” as to the relevance of the result to the search you specified. The exact method of ranking used varies a bit depending on the search. In its most basic level, when you specify a single search term, rank looks at the density of the matches for the word in the document, and how close to the beginning of the document they appear as a measure of importance to the paper’s topic. The documents with the most matches and where the term is deemed to have the most importance, have the highest “relevance” and are ranked first (presented first).

When you specify more than one term to appear anywhere in the article, the method is similar, but the search engine looks at how many of those terms appear, and how close together they appear, how close to the beginning of the document, and can even take into account the relative rarity of the search terms and their density in the retrieved file, where infrequent terms count more heavily than common terms.

To see a simple example of this, search for the words (not the phrase, so no quotes):

unconscious communications

Look at the density of matches in each document on the first page of the hits. Then go to the last page of matched documents, and observe the density of matches within the documents.

A more complex search illustrates this nicely with a single page and only 15 matches:

counter*tr* w/25 “liv* out” w/25 enact*

There are a lot of word forms and variants of the words (due to the * wildcards) above that can match, but the proximity (w/25) clause limits the potential for matching. What’s interesting here though is how easily you can see the match density decrease as you view down the short list.

The end result of selecting order by rank is that the search engine’s best “guess” as to which articles are more relevant appear higher on the list than less relevant articles.

For the complete list of tips, see PEP-Web Tips on the PEP-Web support page.

(2014). List of Contributors. Att: New Dir. in Psychother. Relat. Psychoanal., 8(1):107-111.

(2014). Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 8(1):107-111

List of Contributors

Rosemary Bernstein, MS, is an advanced doctoral candidate working with Dr Jennifer Freyd. Before joining the University of Oregon's Clinical Psychology program in 2009, Rosemary received BAs in Psychology and Art Practice with a minor in Interdisciplinary Studies of Early Childhood from the University of California, Berkeley. Heavily influenced by both attachment theory and betrayal trauma theory, her graduate research has focused on the psychosocial effects of early relational trauma and loss—particularly as they relate to subsequent interpersonal functioning in the context of both romantic and caregiver-child relationships. Rosemary has also worked toward identifying early predictors of insecure and disorganised infant-parent attachment relationships. She was trained in adult attachment interview coding by Drs Main and Hesse, and earned reliability in Spring, 2013. E-mail:

Ruth Blizard, PhD, is a psychologist practicing in Binghamton, NY, USA, with over thirty years of experience in treating people with complex trauma, dissociation, those labelled as having personality disorders and substance abuse issues. She served as editor of the newsletters of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation and Division 56 of the APA, Trauma Psychology News. She is on the editorial board of the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, and has reviewed articles for the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, and Trauma Psychology: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy.

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