Skip to Main Content

Get It Done Guide to Undergraduate Research

Got a research assignment coming up? We're here to help.

Developing a Research Topic: Research Keywords

Research Keywords

One of the hardest parts about writing a research paper (besides the actual writing) is searching databases for appropriate sources. Having a research keyword plan can make the process much easier.

What are keywords? Also known as search queries or key phrases, keywords are words and phrases attributed to sources that best describes the content within that article or publication.

Why is a keyword plan or strategy important? Having a plan for how to search for articles means you'll be able to track what searches you have and haven't done, as well as track any gaps in your search.

How do I identify good keywords? If you already found a source you want to use, check the article information for a section titled "index terms", "subject terms", or "keywords". These are topics associated with your article and could be a great way to start identifying related topics or terms to your subject.

If you're just starting with a topic idea, thinking through the 5 Ws and writing down words or themes is a great way to come up with research keywords. For example, consider the context of your topic, the time period, the audience or people the topic affects.

Another great way to think of keywords is to consider what hashtags you would use on a social media post for your topic.

Exploring the 5 Ws

The 5 Ws are made up of:

  • who
  • what
  • when
  • where
  • why

Using these 5 Ws can be a great way to dive into your research topic and develop your keywords, all while making sure you are covering your topic from all the potential angles. Let's see what kind of questions we can ask to help you dive deeper into your topic and help develop a research topic questions.

  • who is concerned with or cares about this topic?
    • examples: students, government workers, low-income families, etc.
  • what are some things that influence or are influenced by this topic?
    • examples: video games, body type, social media, etc.
  • where is this topic relevant?
    • examples: Maryland, elementary schools, shopping malls, etc.
  • why is the topic important?
    • examples: self-esteem in middle schoolers, shopping habits of teenagers, cultural expectations in multi-generational families, etc.
  • when was or is the topic relevant?
    • examples: during the last five years, post 9/11, 19th century, etc.

Tips for Developing Keywords

Brainstorming Your Keywords

  • Open up a blank document or grab a pen and paper and start listing keywords that you know
  • Ask, what are some other ways that you have heard this topic talked about? 
    • For example, if you listed "climate change" as a keyword, you might want to add "global warming"
  • Hit the Thesaurus if you are stuck

Create a Concept Map

  • Take a look at your concept map. Are there any keywords that are missing from your list?
  • If you don't have a concept map, use the document below and check out our "Developing a Topic" page for more info

Ask a friend

  • We all have different ways of thinking and different experiences. Tell a classmate or one of your friends about your topic and ask if they have any additional ideas for keywords. Chances are their ideas will be different than yours. Two heads are better than one!

Check the Subject Terms

  • Once you find an article that fits with your research, take a look at the subject terms in the database. Sometimes the article will have the keywords listed either near the top or the bottom of the article. Using those same keywords should bring up similar research articles.

Research Keywords in EBSCO (including Academic Search Ultimate):

Where to find the subject terms (aka keywords):

When you click on an article title, subject terms and author-supplied keywords (if available) are on the article description page.

What does it look like:

subject terms in ebsco


Research Keywords in ProQuest:

Where to find subject terms:

When you click on the article title, navigate to the Abstract/Details tab to see subject terms

What does it look like: