Answered By: Karma Gaines Ra
Last Updated: Apr 23, 2020     Views: 7

For a full explanation of the best practices for researching, please see the Advanced Library Research Techniques LibGuide.  Within that guide, there is a link for Subject vs Keywords & Search Strategies with a detailed explanation of how to apply those strategies. 

You can also try the following:

Look for subject headings in the bibliographic record of a book in the catalog about the topic of interest. The subject headings contain keywords you can use when searching for articles in the databases.

Then by, targeting 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 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 keywords:

college student

online classes
online course
distance education

social networking
social media





Next, test and refine your keywords.

1.  Go to the library's homepage and find the 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.  If the authors are using new terms for your concepts, or if you see concepts that you want to explore further - then add them to your lists!

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