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Research Strategies: Keywords


Coming up with Keywords

Coming up with Keywords

Taking a few minutes to think about and identify some keywords before starting your search will help you search more efficiently, which will save you time (and probably a little frustration).

  • Identify important concepts from your research question (look for nouns)
  • Brainstorm some synonyms (to help you find more information)
  • Keep track of useful terms you discover during research

An example of the main concepts in a research questionSynonyms of key concepts

Why Identify Keywords?

You probably already use keyword searching in your own life. For instance, if you're using Google (another search engine), and you need to find information about a movie theater in your town, what words might you use to search?

Why would you use those words?

Here's what I'd put into the search bar: "Windham Movie Theater." Like your search, I've tried to get the most important concepts in: I want to find a movie theater, but not just any movie theater. I want the one in my town, so I add the word Windham.

Whether through a search engine like Google, or through a library database, keywords help you find information.

Creating Your Own Keywords

Finding New Keywords from Your Search Results

Different subjects will often have their own specific terms to describe something. Keeping an eye out for subject-specific language will give you clues as to which subjects are writing about your research question, and what words you can use to search. 

Article record with words highlighted


Here I notice that this is published in the American Journal of Public Health, and that Public Health is used again in the subjects. That suggests to me that I might find research about binge drinking in the subject of public health. Do you notice any subject words that might make good keywords?


Screen shot of the tagged subjects of an article


Here I notice subject terms relating to psychology. That suggests to me that I can probably find some more research on binge drinking in the area of psychology.

You can use your research log to keep track of where you've searched. Keeping track of where you've searched will save you time as you conduct your research.

Exploratory Tools

You can use these suggestions while you are developing keywords from your research question:

  • Ask a librarian. You don't have to wait until you're stuck! A librarian can help no matter where you are in your research.
  • Ask your teacher. Your teacher can help, especially when you're still learning the language of a subject.
  • Brainstorm with a classmate: It can be very useful to bring another perspective to your work. The Generating Keywords Worksheet can help you accomplish this. Share your research question, and any keywords you've come up with. 

Other resources to come up with keywords:

Look back at class readings or class discussions. Class readings and class discussions are background research, too! You might find that you've covered a topic or concept that will suggest useful keywords.

Quick Recap

  • Key ideas from your research question (think nouns)
  • Brainstorm synonyms
  • Talk to others to help work out your ideas
  • Record useful terms you found doing research. Be open to change.
  • Keep track of which keywords worked and didn't work, and the sources you find.