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Research Guides

Information Literacy & Library Research: Keyword Basics

Information literacy is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to identify, locate and evaluate, and then legally and responsibly use and share that information.


What is a Keyword

wordcloud of the main keywords of the text.A big part of research is knowing what words best describe your topic, whether in your research question or as you start searching the databases in the next steps. Keywords are the words that describe your topic in the shortest and most descriptive way. Good keywords need to be based on your topic, but also on the language commonly used by the scholars researching within your topic. A major part of doing your background research is learning what words best describe what you want to talk about in an academic way.

For example, if you were writing about marijuana, as in the example in the Topics and Background Research reading, we learned that there are multiple ways of saying marijuana, such as cannabis, CBD, weed, and pot. Which words would make better keywords? Slang and other vernacular words are less likely to appear in academic articles, so we need to find the words that are used by scholars when writing about their research. In this case, scholars are more likely to just say marijuana or cannabis, or get more specific by saying medical marijuana or CBD, than use slang terms like pot.

Sometimes, keywords consist of multiple words, in which case it is called a key phrase. Key phrases are multi-word search terms. Key phrases are not short sentence snippets, rather they are word combinations that commonly occur together to make a new or different meaning. Examples of key phrases are “high school”, “real estate”, “mental health”, and “social media”. When you are searching it is always a good idea to put your phrases in quotes so the words are kept together. Breaking apart a key phrase would cause the phrase to lose its meaning.

As you read the Wikipedia articles on your topic, look for the words and phrases that describe your topic in a more official, academic way. Most of the time it will take multiple keyword combinations to describe your topic accurately, which you see in the Writing a Research Question reading. So keeping a list of all the potential keywords that could describe your topic is a great idea.

Keyword Banks

Keyword banks are lists of potential keywords to use when starting your research. You will need these in your Searching step of the Research Process. You will learn more how to use them as you start database searching and in the Keywords and Boolean Operators reading.

You can make a keyword bank by just keeping track of any term you find in your background searching that might be a good word to describe what you want to research. Keyword banks are a good way to keep track of terms you learn so when you start searching, you have options to try. Oftentimes you will find that not all of the keywords you gather will be useful, and that is okay. By keeping track of them you will know what to try and what worked and what didn't.

An example of a keyword bank for a topic about Medicinal Marijuana and Mental Health.
Marijuana Medicinal Mental Health
cannabis medical depression
weed CBD "mental illness"
pot cannabidiol "mental disorder"
thc medical marijuana "psychiatric illness"
recreational marijuana anxiety