Identify Keywords

Once you have decided on your research topic or question, the next step is to plan how you will search for information sources on your topic in databases, library catalogs, web search engines, etc. Computers aren’t advanced enough yet to understand human language. As a general rule, they can only search for matches of the keywords you type.

A research topic is made up of concepts. Every concept needs to be represented by keywords. You combine the keywords in certain ways (which will be covered in the next few paragraphs) to create an effective search.

A good way to identify keywords is to create a concept chart where you put each concept at the top of its own column. Underneath each concept, you write all the synonyms and related words and phrases you can brainstorm. It is often helpful to scan through your text books and reference sources for more ideas.  Since different authors use different language to describe the same concepts, the more keywords and phrases you can identify, the better chance you have of locating information sources that deal with your exact question.

Here’s an example. First, you break down your research question into its main concepts:

"What where the effects of Hurricane Katrina on crawfish populations?" Boil it down to people, places, things, activities and ideas. So you get Hurricane Katrina, crawfish and effects.
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Next you brainstorm synonyms and related words and phrases for each concept. Textbooks from the course and reference sources are especially helpful at this stage.

When you have a concept, the name of the concept is your first keyword. Then you look for synonyms and related words. For example, if you start with Hurricane Katrina, related words might be hurricanes, storms and flooding.
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Finally, put it all together in a concept chart with each concept at the head of a column. The keywords (synonyms and related words and phrases) go underneath each concept.

It helps to organize all your ideas in a chart. Going across the top, list your concepts. Underneath each concept, list the synonyms and related words you came up with. Under crayfish, you might have crawdads, crawfish and crustaceans. Under effects, you might have impact and influence.


  • Words often have multiple meanings, which can cause your search to bring up some irrelevant results. For example, if you search for “storm” in a multidisciplinary (many topics) database, you could get results about thunder storm (weather), Operation Desert Storm (military history) and cytokine storm (medicine). You need to add more keywords to your search to specify what you mean.
  • Some concepts have multiple words and phrases that represent them. For example, evolution, speciation and natural selection are all used in describing the same idea. Your keyword list should include all the common words and phrases that represent your concept.
  • Certain keywords can be redundant in certain contexts. For example, using environment as a keyword in an environmental sciences database may bring up practically every article in that database. Similarly, depending on the search and the database you’re using, you may get better results if you leave out words like effectsrelationship or cause. Try your search with these, and then without, to see which gets better results. Searching often involves this kind of trial and error.

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a brief course in information literacy