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Research Tips & Peer Reviewed Articles: Basic Keyword Searching


Thinking in Keywords

An important step in brainstorming any topic is to learn to think in keywords rather than in whole questions.  There are several reasons to do this:

  • Writers use different words to describe the same ideas, or may put them in different order
  • Internet search engines look at main words and skip “stop words”
    • Stop words are commonly used words such as articles, pronouns, and prepositions.  They do not add any meaning to a database search, so searching them would be a waste of computing resources.
    • For a list of common stop words in EBSCO database, click here.    
  • Some databases or web pages may cover aspects of your topic, but others will focus on one small part


Here are three steps to practice:

  1. State your question or topic
  2. Pick out the keywords in the question or topic
  3. Add to your list of keywords by thinking of synonyms and related terms (don’t forget singular and plural forms, too)


Here are some examples of search topics and relevant keywords.  We will talk about how to combine keywords in the lessons about Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT



Keywords in the Topic

Related Keywords

What are some ways to save energy at home?

Ways, save, energy, home

Ways: way, methods, technology

Save: reduce, bill, bills, cheaper, green

Energy: power, resources, utilities, heat, light, lighting, electricity, wood, gas, fireplace

Home: house

What caused the recession?

Caused, recession

Caused: cause, start, started, “set off”

Recession: downturn, “economic conditions”, housing, “wall street”, investments, mortgages

Breast cancer

Breast, cancer, “breast cancer”

Breast: mammary

Cancer: Neoplasm, etiology, diagnosis, epidemiology, occurrence,

Are there advantages to being bilingual?

Advantages, bilingual

Advantages: advantage, benefit, benefits, pluses

Bilingual: “second language”, “two languages”


Related keywords can be more specific than the words you start with.  So, when you are brainstorming, if you run out of synonyms for a keyword, try thinking of words that fit the category of your keyword. Here are some examples:

  • Bread: sourdough, whole wheat, muffins, pretzels
  • Chair: recliner, highchair, rocker, overstuffed
  • South (region): Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama
  • Musical instruments: violin, clarinet, trumpet, timpani


In most of the Library databases, if you type two words next to each other in a search box, the computer will look for each word separately and for the several words together (as a phrase). To search for the phrase, type the words in quotation marks.

An example is the phrase space station. Without quotation marks, the computer will pull up articles about the International Space Station, but might also pull up articles about what it is like to work in the tight space of a cubicle in a TV station. To search for the phrase, type "space station".

Shortening Search Words

Sometimes there are several keywords that you'd like to search for that begin with the same letters. For example, if you are researching work, you might want to look for these words: work, worker, workers, working, workmen.  The asterisk ( * ) can save you from having to type all of these words separately. In the search box, just type work*, and the computer will pull up all the items containing words that begin with these four letters.

This procedure is called truncation. Very handy sometimes, but think before you truncate too far. For example, if you type bio*, you will always get way too many hits.