The Research Paper: Keywords, Keywords, Keywords

In writing on October 8, 2009 at 5:14 pm


Last week, we talked about using your school’s library — not just to get a quick snooze in between classes but to help get a jump start on your research papers. This week, I’d like to talk about one of the first steps in doing the research. Once you have a topic and are ready to begin, you’ll want to find some research.

Before you start using the library database or hopping online to find articles, it’s worth your time to start a keyword list. Keywords are the words you’ll use when searching for information, whether you’re searching with your library’s database or online. Often, I’ll see students start a search by typing in the first words that come to mind. This makes sense, right? The problem comes when no results appear, and we assume that there’s no information on the topic. “I think I have to change my topic,” a student will say. “There’s just nothing written about my topic.” Some students will change their topics three or even four times because of problems like this. There’s a much easier way!

When doing database research, it’s all about getting the right keywords. Library databases use keywords and subject terms to locate the articles. If you happen to use words that the database doesn’t use very often, your search will come up with limited information or even without any information — even if there are tons of articles on your topic.

The trick is to generate a list (a real list that you write down, not a list that you keep in your head!) of keywords before you sit down to the computer. When your first keyword doesn’t work, try other words on your list. Also, as you’re searching in the database, you’ll keep building and adding to your keyword list. You do this by noticing which subject terms the computer uses for articles that you generate in your searches. Most databases will have a list of subject terms. If you see one that’s not on your keyword list, add it. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised at the strange words the database uses for your topic. Keep a list, and you’ll be able to find quality research faster and with a lot less work!

Also, I think it’s worth repeating that you can always ask a librarian for help with your keyword list. Librarians work with databases every day, and they might have ideas about what words will find the best results.


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