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Why Keywords?

Once you have determined your paper topic, you're almost ready to start finding resources. Keywords are the secret to successful library searches! You use keywords all the time searching on the web via Google or your search engine of choice. Each word you plug in a search box is a keyword.

Even though they both have search boxes and use keywords, library databases don't work quite like Google. It would be nice if they did! Then we could type in a question or phrase describing a topic and get a list of articles with more information or that answer the question, as Google often does. More than likely doing this a library database will give zero results. Why?

Databases don't understand natural language and will only return results containing all of the words you put the search box.

For this reason, you need to break your topic down into concepts or specific keywords that are most important to the search. This is one of the most important things to remember about library database research!

Take a look at this topic: What social conditions caused the growth of terrorist organizations in Israel? The key elements of this research question are: social conditions, terrorist organizations, and Israel. The causal relationship is already implied by searching for the keywords together, thus cause and growth are not necessary as keywords.

Sample Keyword Brainstorms

After identifying the most important elements of your topic, an essential step to having a research strategy is brainstorming out potential keywords. This includes related words, broader and more specific words, as well as synonyms – words that mean the same thing.

Synonyms are especially important because the words other people use may not be the same ones you naturally think of. Library database searches depend on what words the author used and what words are assigned to articles by the indexers, called subjects or subject headings. This is why it's important to do a bit of prep and try out several synonymous words and combinations.

Let’s brainstorm out the topic from from earlier: What social conditions caused the growth of terrorist organizations in Israel? .

Keywords Include:

  • social conditions - social aspects, social psychology, social policy, human rights, religion
  • terrorist organizations - terrorism, terrorist, suicide bombings
  • Israel - Israeli, Palestine, Middle East

Struggling to come up with keywords…do a bit of background research

Read up on the topic in encyclopedias or on reputable websites.

Run a basic search in a library database appropriate for you topic. This will give you a good idea about what's available.

  • Read short articles for general information.
  • Look for articles with strong bibliographies--a great jumping off point.
  • Take a look at the subjects being generated from your keywords. Anything useful?

Taking a few minutes to prepare before jumping into research can save you lots of time in the long run!

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