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Arkansas State University

Starting Your Research Paper: Define Keywords

Time for the dreaded paper? Learn how to get started!


Before you begin searching, you may want to spend a few minutes thinking about your keywords. This will help make your searches more effective (and faster!). Many people are used to writing entire sentences in Google and getting results. This approach is called natural language. Unfortunately, many library resources can't handle natural language. Instead, you should use selective keywords instead. To begin, make a list of only the words and phrases that are the most important.

For example:

Natural Language: What is the distance between the earth and the sun?

Keywords: distance earth sun

If you're having trouble determining your keywords, think about what your hashtags might be if you were creating a social media post. For example:

What is the distance between the earth and the sun? #distance #earth #sun


Also, think about related topics, alternative spellings, aliases, and synonyms and add them to your list.

Topic: Helen Duncan's arrest and trial

Possible Keywords: Helen Duncan, spiritualism, medium, ectoplasm, hoax, Britain, Witchcraft Act
(Note: I needed to learn more about Helen by reading her Wikipedia entry to come up with these keywords.)

Hints for Keywords

1. Spelling matters! While some resources will suggest correct spellings, many will search for words exactly as you spelled them. If you do a search and you're not getting as many results as you think you should, check your spelling!

Search Result With Typo Highlighted

2. Think about alternate keywords. Authors may use different words when writing about very similar topics. For example, some authors write about teens, others teenagers, while others adolescents. Each search gives you different results, so try a few different searches with different keywords.

3. When searching for people, think about alternate names. For example, Herman Webster Mudgett is famously known as H.H. Holmes. Another example is Alferd Packer, which is often misspelled as Alfred.
4. Learn from the pros! When you do find a resource that you like, look at the record, abstract, and/or table of content to figure out other words that the author/s used. Let's say you find the journal article below while searching for the keyword kuru. Look at how many possible keywords are in the record for the article: 

Record Example