Answered By: Priscilla Coulter
Last Updated: Jun 06, 2023     Views: 122494

The words that you type into a search box are the key to finding the most relevant articles and books. That's why they're called keywords!

You'll need to choose keywords carefully. See the steps below (or if you prefer, here is a short video).

First, identify the major concepts from your topic.

1.  Write out a brief description (1 or 2 sentences) of your research topic. It can be very helpful to phrase it in the form of a question that you'd like to answer. (See the research question example below.)

2.  Identify the most important 2 - 4 words from your research question. These are your key concepts.


  • To decide which words are most important, imagine that you need to explain your topic to someone using no more than 4 words. Words like "does," "the," "in," or "of" (while useful in a sentence) won't be specific enough, so you wouldn't use those.

3.  For each key concept, make a list of other words with the same or related meanings. These will be your keywords!


  • Use a thesaurus to find synonyms.
  • Think of specific examples or types. 
  • If your topic is something you don't know enough about yet, it can be hard to think of synonyms or examples. Find some background information on your topic to help jump-start your brainstorming!

  Look at an example:

  • Research question: "Does the use of social networking in online classes help students learn?"
  • Key concepts and keywords:

college students

online classes
online course
distance education
remote learning

social networking
social media



Next, test and refine your keywords.

1.  Go to the library's homepage and find the Everything search box.

2.  Choose one keyword from each concept list. Type those keywords into the search box. Type AND between each one (learn about Boolean operators: AND, OR, NOT).

Examples (from our list above):

  • students AND online classes AND social networking AND learning
  • college students AND online courses AND social media AND performance
  • learners AND online courses AND Facebook AND grades

3.  Click search and explore the results. Try several of your keyword combinations, and keep a list of the keywords that fetch the most relevant articles.

4.  Look closely at the most relevant articles in your search results. You may see new author-supplied keywords or database subject headings that describe your topic. Add those terms to your list.

5.  Create new keyword combinations from your refined list of terms, and test them again


  •  undergraduates AND online courses AND social networking
  •  student engagement AND higher education AND social networking
  • learning communities AND online courses AND social networking

6.  As you try out new keyword combinations, it can be very helpful to save the most relevant articles as you go along.

If you are struggling to find the right keywords for your topic, contact a librarian


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