A Student's Brief Overview of Using Keywords to Search for Research Sources
Tips for keyword search. A major part of research for college writing assignments is the keyword search, to find both library and Internet resources for your research papers.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
A major linchpin in conducting research for the writing assignments you do in college is the keyword search, which you will employ to find both library and Internet resources. You likely know something about keyword searches because you probably search the Internet frequently. Two important principles distinguish the keyword searches you'll do for academic assignments:
- You must be persistent and creative in using keywords. You can't try just one set of keywords and give up if you get paltry results. An effective keyword search requires a strategy and planning a list of possible keywords and phrases to try.
- Search engines for most academic searches, such as library databases (see next section) use Boolean searching, named after British mathematician George Boole, which is somewhat different from the searching you may be used to in Internet searches. A Boolean search uses "operators," words (and, or, not, and near) that enable you to expand or narrow your search.
Here is a very quick crash course in using Boolean operators:
- The search engine will look for an exact phrase if you surround the phrase with quotation marks: "teen pregnancy." This principle is also true of most non-Boolean search engines (such as Google).
- If your keyword or phrase (also known as a search term) has commonly used synonyms, the OR operator will enable you to search for the term and its synonyms: teenage OR adolescent.
- If you want to narrow your search by having the engine look for documents in which more than one search term appears, use AND as the operator: "teen pregnancy" AND "school performance." In most search engines, you can substitute a plus sign (+) for AND with no space between the + and the subsequent search term: "teen pregnancy" +"school performance."
- If you want eliminate a search term that might typically come up in search results for your search term, you can use the NOT operator: "teen pregnancy" NOT abortion. In most search engines, you can substitute a minus sign (-) for NOT with no space between the - and the subsequent search term: "teen pregnancy" -abortion.
- To search for words close to each other but not exact phrases, you can use the NEAR operator: pregnancy NEAR adolescent.
- To search for all forms of a word, you can use wild cards by inserting a symbol (usually *, but sometimes % or $) after part of the search word: adolescen* would search for adolescent or adolescence. pregn* would search for pregnant or pregnancy. You can also use wild cards to find alternate spellings, such as British and American spellings: lab*r would search for both labor and labour.
- You can use these operators in combination.
You can find complete tutorials on Boolean searches at these sites:
Keyword searches using Internet search engines operate on similar but not identical principles. Google, for example, generally ignores Boolean operators (and other common words) and is also not case-sensitive (it doesn't matter whether the keywords you type are capitalized or not). But Google does search for exact phrases in quotation marks. The nuances of searching the most popular Internet search engines can be found at these sites:
None of this information on keyword searches will help you if you are not already thinking broadly about your keyword strategy. A few tips for thinking as strategically as possible about your keyword search:
- Start brainstorming lists of possible keywords and phrases before you even begin searching. Think about the most important concepts related to your topic. Ask yourself, "What words would a source have to include to be truly valuable in my search?" Then think about synonyms for the most important words, and well as variations (singular and plural, noun and adjective forms, for example).
- It may take the discovery of only one truly relevant article to steer you in the right keyword direction because in most databases, the keywords under which an article is classified are listed with the article. If you look at those keywords for the first really germane article you find, you may get lots of new ideas for keywords to search for.
- Be wary of outdated terms, especially if you are researching a rapidly changing field, such as technology.
- Enlist your reference librarian in helping you plan your search strategy.
Final Thoughts on Keywords
Keywords truly are a key that opens a door to research sources. Don't be discouraged if you have difficulty with your keyword searches in the beginning. Keyword searching is an art in which your skills are bound to improve with time and experience. Just remember to ask for help if you are really stuck.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She is also Creative Director and Associate Publisher at Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.