Answered By: Priscilla Coulter
Last Updated: Sep 13, 2017     Views: 16901

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.  Here's how:

First, target the major concepts from your topic.

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

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 tell someone your topic 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 (Lock icon.  This is a subscription resource; please log in with your APUS credentials.) 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 to 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 key words:

college student

online classes
online course
distance education

social networking
social media


  See a video.


Next, test and refine your keywords.

1.  Go to the library's homepage and find the big Articles & Databases search box.

2.  Choose one keyword from each concept list.  Type those keywords into the search box.  Type AND between each one. Why?

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.

  • If you get too many results, try more or narrower keywords.
  • If you get too few results, try using fewer or broader keywords.

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!

Example:  click to view larger

Take note of keywords used by authors!


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.  Save the most relevant articles as you test your keywords...chances are, you'll find much of what you need as you go!


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

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