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Information Literacy, Level One: From topic to keywords

This guide is designed to support the Information Literacy unit within ENG 111, but also provide a first-level introduction to research skills for any Meredith College student.

Why search with keywords?

Say you want to research how do certain fragrances trigger memories in our brain?  Shouldn't I just type that whole question into the OneSearch box?

The problem is that the library search tool will consider all nine of those words when it looks for matching books or articles.  In the example above, the library search tool looks for articles that use the words "how" and "in", not just the more important terms.  As a result, many of your search results will be totally irrelevant to the question you asked.

Instead of searching whole sentences, try identifying the key concepts in your research question and search them as keywords.  In the topic above, the key concepts are:

  • fragrances
  • memories
  • brain

Type those into the OneSearch box.  By searching these keywords, you will find the sources that use these three words the most.

Keyword tips

Here are a few tips to remember about keywords:

1) Focus on nouns as your keywords, unless there is a specific verb or adjective that is is central to your topic.

2) Leave out generic words like "effect", "cause", "impact", and "change", since they appear in millions of article titles and won't add anything distinctive to your search.

3) If your concept is best represented by a multi-word phrase (such as "birth control" or "social media"), put the phrase in quotation marks in your search.  This will ensure that the library search tool will only find sources that use those words as a phrase.

4) The type of source you want may dictate the words you search.  For example, if you want magazine articles or popular books about prison sentences for illegal drug users, you might use words like "prison" or "jail"; if you want scholarly journal articles by experts in the field of criminology, you might use "incarceration" instead.

5) Add another concept to your search if you're finding too many results.  This may involve one or more extra keywords that the sources would have to match, meaning that fewer sources will remain in your results.  Conversely, remove a concept if you're not finding enough.

Using Keywords: Broadening and Narrowing Your Search

Usually, when you enter multiple keywords into a search, the search engine will bring back documents that contain all of those words.

This means that if you use more keywords in your search, you will tend to get fewer results. 

If you find that your search is turning up too many results, and/or irrelevant results, try adding more keywords for a narrower, more precise search.

If your searches seem to be giving you too few results, try removing keywords from your search to make it broader.

Synonyms and related terms

Identifying the key concepts is an important first step.  But you also need to realize that the authors of books and articles about your topic might use different terms than the ones you've chosen.  If you don't search those other terms, you may not find those sources.

Let's return to the question of how do certain fragrances trigger memories in our brain?  What other words might authors use for our three concepts?

  • fragrances: smell, aromas, scents
  • memories:memory, remember, recall
  • brain: mind

Try searching different combinations of these keywords and related terms, in order to capture different books and articles. For example, your first search might be smell memory brain, and your second search might be fragrance remember mind.  You might be surprised how new articles pop up with each combination!

Choosing keywords

This video created by the Norwich University Library walks you through the process of selecting good keywords.

Keyword brainstorming practice

Say you want to research the impact of media on body image.  What are some related terms and synonyms that you could search for each of the two main concepts?

Type one term into the box at a time, and press the Submit button for each.  After you've entered several keywords, click on the links beneath the search boxes to view Word Clouds of all the keywords that ENG 111 students have come up with.

See Word Cloud for "body image" See Word Cloud for "media"