Identify keywords

Why do you need keywords?

Before you dive into your research, it’s useful to make a list of keywords that you will use as search terms. This can help you define your focus, and it will be a useful tool once you start searching, especially if your first search attempts don’t find much that’s useful.

Pull out key concepts

Once you have your topic, write it out as a short sentence or question and look at the different components that make up your statement. For example, the research statement “Is memory loss related to aging?” has two main concepts:

  1. memory loss
  2. aging

Start compiling a list of the key words that you will use as you search for your topic. List the words in groups by category. For example, the topic “Is memory loss related to aging?” might have key words that fall into two general categories:

  1. memory loss or amnesia or Alzheimer’s
  2. aging or aged or elderly or seniors

Other words might relate to multiple aspects of your topic, or the topic as a whole.

Combine your terms into search strategies

Build strategies from your lists of words to give the online resource some options: (memory loss OR Alzheimer’s OR amnesia) AND (aging OR elderly OR seniors)

Put your synonyms in parentheses with the word OR between them.  The online resource then only needs to match one of your synonyms when searching.  In the example above, the results could be about “elderly memory loss” or “amnesia of aging people” or “seniors with Alzheimer’s”.  As you learn more about your topic, you will likely change your keywords over time.  Searching is an iterative process that will constantly evolve as you move forward with your research.

Expand your list by thinking of related terms

Keep in mind that the way terms are used in some fields can be very different from standard everyday usage, and that popular sources such as newspapers or magazines may use different terms than scholarly writing. Reference sources are one good way to start generating lists of these terms for your topic.

As you progress through your research project, keep adding new terms to your list as you find them. Subject headings and article abstracts are particularly good places to look.

As we are dealing with words, include variations in language, dialects, etc.: British English, American English, Singlish, Indian English, etc.


Creative Commons Licence
Starting Your Research by University of California Santa Cruz, University Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.  Some content has been modified to suit the curricular and research needs of Yale-NUS College.  All changes are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.