1.6 Translating your Topic into Searchable Keywords

Since you won’t already know which subject headings to search, how do you get started? One way is to use keywords. Take a few minutes to think of potential synonyms or relevant aspects of your topic. You can even do sample searches to look for synonyms and other information.

Here is an example:

For a class project, you need to research the assigned topic of home design that is safe and comfortable for the elderly. You could go to Google and search for:

“home design that is safe and comfortable for the elderly”

Using this natural language approach, you’ll find lots of results in Google, and some of them will be helpful and relevant. As you look through your results, you might find synonyms or alternate vocabulary that might be useful, including: “home safety,” “universal design,” “accessible housing,” “older adults,” “elder-friendly,” “seniors,” “supportive design,” and so on. These are keywords that might be helpful for you to consider using when building a new search within any finding tool.

For your project, you’re required to use article indexes rather than web resources. So, you go to the library website, find the article index your professor told you to use, and you type in exactly what you searched in Google: home design that is safe and comfortable for the elderly – only this time you get zero results. What now?

It’s time to rethink your search terms. When using article indexes, search term selection becomes much more important. Let’s break your topic down into the various concepts that comprise it, and then add some synonyms or alternate vocabulary that might be useful to describe the same concepts, or elements of those concepts:

Concept 1
home design: universal design; design for aging; elder-friendly design; housing design; architecture; architectural design; design features; supportive design; design

Concept 2
safe and comfortable: home safety, accessibility, barrier-free

Concept 3
the elderly: senior citizens, seniors, old, older adults, older people, aging, aged, elderly people, elder

You can then do some exploratory searching in your finding tool by using short combinations of your keywords, such as:

  • elderly AND home design AND safety
  • universal design AND safety AND older people
  • senior citizens AND homes AND design

Different finding tools require different search vocabulary and techniques. When you’re using scholarly finding tools, you will often find that you need to break down your topic into keywords appropriate for each finding tool. You may need to explore using different terms until you find your best results. This process of revising search terms will be helpful as you do research for your classes.

Need some more practice? Take a look at this How to Generate Keywords tutorial, from the University of Texas at Austin. It will take you through the steps of brainstorming synonyms for the topic of your choice. You can even copy and paste the terms you come up with into our own ISU databases.


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