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Research Toolkit: Search Terms

Creating Search Terms

Search Terms

Identifying search terms (also called keywords) is often a challenging part of research, because the terms you use are crucial to your ability to locate the resources that you need. It can be frustrating when you can't find what you want. Persistence will pay off, though: you just need to keep adjusting your search terms and you'll be successful.

The quick strategy to adjust those terms is to start with your topic or research question, and then look for alternative ways to say the words or ideas. You might try using a thesaurus!

Here is the more detailed approach:

First, identify your research question. Your research question could be: What are the effects of weightlifting on young adults?

Second, select the key words from your research question. In our example, the keywords are:

What are the effects of weightlifting on young adults?

Third, look for alternatives for the key words you've identified. Be sure to try a thesaurus to help identify alternatives that may not be obvious.

  • Weightlifting: power lifting, strength training, weight training, exercise
  • Young adults: teens, males, females, teenagers, adolescence
  • Effects: side effects, results, consequences

Fourth, try your searches by combining your keywords and alternatives using Boolean operators. Boolean Operators, which are AND, OR, or NOT, connect or eliminate search terms.

Boolean Operators Example Ven Diagram



The example "puppy AND dog," will give you any result that mentions both puppies and dogs.

The example "puppy OR dog," will give you results that mention puppies, dogs, or both puppies and dogs.

The example "puppy NOT dog," will only provide results that mention puppy. Any results that also mention dog will be eliminated.

You will have to do a few searches to locate the resources you're looking for! Use parenthesis ( ) to group terms together. Based on our example, here are just some of the searches you could try:

Weightlifting AND (young adults OR teenagers OR teens) AND side effects NOT cardio

Weightlifting AND young adults

Young adults AND (workout NOT cardio)

More Helpful Search Tips

Helpful Searching Tips
  1. You can search the databases using both Keywords and Subject terms. Learn the difference between searching by keywords and searching by subject terms with the Keyword and Subject Term Tutorial (below).

  2. Each database has a Basic Search Screen as well as Advanced Search features. The different databases also offer help screens. For instance, Academic Search Premier offers links to Database Help and Searching Tips; these are located near the space where you type in your search terms.

  3. When you select the Full Text check box (to the left of your search results), the database will seek out only those articles available that have all the text originally published. If you don't choose Full Text, the results of your search will include both full text articles you can download, print out, or email to yourself, as well as abstracts (which are short summaries of the article) and citations for articles available in print format. If the article is not available in full-text through the article databases, write down the bibliographic information (Author, Title, Magazine/Journal Title, and the date). You can to your home college or local public library's Interlibrary Loan (ILL) to obtain the full-text article.

Video Tips

More Helpful Search Tips

Online Sites With More Helpful Searching Tips

Keyword & Subject Term Tutorial

What's the Difference Between Keyword and Subject Term Searching?

When you want to search for a topic, you can search using words you think of that describe your concept; this is called Keyword Searching. You can also search using words that the database uses to index and describe your topic; this is called Subject Term Searching. You can think of subject searching as being similar to using the index in the back of a book to find exactly what you are looking for.

Keyword Search

Subject Search

  • Good place to start if you don't know the terms a catalog or database uses for your topic

  • Best way to ensure you get all applicable documents in a catalog or article datbase

  • Keywords are any significant word or phrase you think of to describe your topic

  • Search terms (subject headings) must come from the database's thesaurus

  • Use when searching for a new concept or jargon - for example, twitter or Pinterest

  • Use when you are searching for a broad concept, such as human trafficking

  • Searches for terms anywhere in the record (database)

  • Searches for terms in the subject field only

  • Broadens search results but may retrieve irrelevant materials

  • Narrows search results but retrieves all relevant materials available

  • Usually the default search

  • Usually available from advanced search screens

  • More flexible search

  • Less flexible search

  • May end up with too many or too fiew results depending on keywords used

  • Need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term


How Do I Come Up with Useful Keywords?

Most times when we search on Google, we plug in the first thing we think of or sometimes a phrase, and Google usually brings back something from the list of results that's sort of related to our search. With a database, fewer words is better than more: the idea is to figure out which specific keywords to plug in to your search will give you the best results.

Let's say that you wrote down a sentence about your topic: What are the causes of climate change? To get the keywords, go through that sentence and get rid of words like interrogative words (what), articles (the), prepositions (of), and auxiliary verbs (are). You're left with a good start for keywords: causes climate change. You will want to switch that around so the most important words come first: climate change causes. You want the databases to find article with the words climate change together (rather than anything with the word climate or the word change). So you will want to put those words inside quotes. You end up with this: "climate change" causes (or cause). That should pull up some articles that fit with what you're looking for.

If you aren't finding enough search results, once you find articles that fit what you want, you can go to the article record and look under the article summary and look over the list of subject terms -- those are the terms the author, publisher, and database uses to classify the articles. Very often, if you use the same subject terms in a new search, you will find what you're looking for.

How Do I Find Subject Headings?

  1. You can find the list of available subject terms (thesaurus) in the EBSCO article databases by going into a particular article database, such as Academic Search Premier, and clicking on the Subject link found at the top of the page.

    Subject Terms search

  2. You can also start by doing a keyword search, using words you naturally think of to describe your topic and then select an article record that's very close to or exactly on your topic. Read through the article description to find the subject terms or descriptors associated with this particular article and then repeat your search using the subject headings or descriptors listed.

    Article description with subjects