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Research Toolkit: Keywords

Tools, techniques, and resources to help you find the information you need.

 Related Guide: Choosing a Topic

Once you've chosen a good topic, it helps to take a few minutes to identify keywords that will help you find what you need. Having a list of keywords will help guide your search and lead you to relevant information on your topic. Here are some tips to get you started.

Watch - Using Keywords


When searching for sources in library databases, you might be tempted to enter your entire research topic or question like you would in Google. Unfortunately, this often leads to zero results in library databases. Instead you want to break down your topic or question into keywords. Keywords are the main points or concepts in your research topic that can be used to effectively search in library databases.
To identify keywords for your topic, ask yourself: what are the main points or ideas? For example: in our topic, what effect does technology use have in a child's development? Our keywords would be "technology use" and "child development." Before we begin searching, we need to brainstorm alternate and related keywords for this topic and we need to keep an eye out for even better keywords as we search. Different people use different words to describe the same thing, so it helps to brainstorm synonyms for our topic and to keep an open mind as we search. Alternate keywords for child development could be juvenile development, toddler development, or even adolescent development. This may depend on what age range you are interested in as you start to search, and this way keywords can also be used to narrow your search.
Let's say we get thousands of search results on this topic which is way too many, we can narrow it down by focusing on a related term, an age range, or even a specific type of technology such as iPads or televisions. Notice that we did not choose "effect" as a keyword because this is too broad. In fact, nearly all the articles in our library databases might include the word effect, and say we want to brainstorm specific effects we might be interested in learning about, such as brain development, attention, creativity, or eyesight. Once we have brainstormed possible keywords we can begin searching, but as we search we may discover new keywords and might need to revise keywords based on our results.
Let's say we found one or two articles we are interested in. We might scour the articles abstracts and subjects to harvest some new keywords. Also, we should note that if you have a very specific subject, such as parking at USU, you may not be able to find results on parking at Utah State University, even though these seem like great keywords. However, if you broaden your search to "University" and "parking" you may have more luck in library databases.


Try It: Brainstorming Keywords Worksheet


Step 1: Identify the Major Concepts of Your Topic

Pick out the key concepts that make up your topic and omit common words like what, the, is, of, have, etc. For example, if your research question is  "What impact does social media have on mental health?", the key concepts would be social media and mental health. These are keywords that will help you find information on your topic. 


Step 2: Brainstorm Synonyms for Your Keywords

Coming up with synonyms for your keywords gives you more keywords, and, therefore, more options when searching for information. Synonyms are terms that have the same or similar meaning. Let's use our sample research topic. Just because our research question uses the word social media does not mean that every author uses that same word. Some authors might use synonyms for social media, such as social networking, or more specific terms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. In order to collect all the relevant articles on your topic, you might want to include these synonyms in your search.

Image showing synonyms for different keywords separated into boxes. Box #1 lists synonyms for social media, including social networking, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Box #2 lists keywords for mental health, including anxiety, depression, psychological impact, and psychological aspects.


Pro Tip: Use a thesaurus to help you come up with synonyms. Wikipedia is also a helpful source for coming up with synonyms and related terms


Step 3: Use Your Keywords in a Search for Books, Articles, or Other Information


Pro Tip: You'll probably stumble upon more keywords once you begin searching. Great - try them out!.