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Research Help: Keywords

Choosing Keywords Video

Boolean Operators Explained

What are keywords and why do they matter?

Keywords are terms that represent the main ideas and concepts in a research topic. Using keywords to find information, and figuring out what keywords to use, is a crucial aspect of conducting research, and finding information in general. When you're developing keywords, you need to think about how to describe what you are looking for, and what words other people might be using to talk about your topic. 

There are a few types of keywords that you can work with, depending on your topic.

  • Narrow
  • Broader
  • Related
  • Similar

Having a range of keywords can help you find a lot of different types of information. 

How do I use keywords?

You can put keywords together to search for information. You can use Booleans to help put your keywords together and structure your searches. See below for more information about Booleans. 

  • Library databases work differently than Google. When you use Google, you can often search for phrases and get relevant results.
  • Library databases work best when you search for concepts and keywords.
  • For your research, you will want to brainstorm keywords related to your research question. These keywords can lead you to relevant sources that you can use in your research project.

How do I figure out keywords to use?

If you don't feel like you know enough about your topic to brainstorm keywords, head back to the Finding Background Information tab for tips on how to get more details about your topic.

You can use the following steps to help you brainstorm keywords.

1. Identify key concepts in your research question.

For instance, we might be researching the following question:

What effects do healthy school lunches have on the overall health of students?

The key concepts areas here are


 Note: Keywords are often nouns, so a word like "effect' is not going to work as a keyword. It's much too broad.

2. Brainstorm related terms for your concepts. You'll want to look for terms that are broader, narrower, related, and similar.

Broader: Instead of just "school lunch" we might want to look for even broader concepts like legislation related to school lunches.

Narrower: Since health is broad, we can look for narrower concepts like diabetes.

Related: Instead of just health, we can look for concepts like nutrition and fitness.

Similar: We can try out terms like teens or children when looking for students. We can also identify specific student populations, like high school students.

 3. Tip for efficient searching

You can make your search more efficient by using Truncation. A truncated keyword looks like this:


The asterisk lets the database know to search a lot of possible ending for the word at the same time. So instead of just "teen" you'll get results for "teens" and "teenager."

What is a Boolean search?

A Boolean search means you use "and" or "or" to structure your search.

Searching with "and"

When you combine keywords with "and" you narrow down your search results. 

Searching with "or"

When you combine keywords with "or" you broaden your search results. 

Why use Boolean search techniques?

Databases don't operate like Google, which automatically includes Boolean terms like "and" when searching. By using Booleans, you can more efficiently find useful and relevant results in a database.