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Advanced literature searching skills: Choosing keywords

Choosing keywords: things to think about

It may be tempting to type the title of your project into the search box, but this will not give you the best results. Take for example this tricky sounding project: "In the context of the quantity theory of money, explain the relationship between the growth rates of the money supply and the rates of inflation and show that inflation could, in the long run, be considered as a monetary phenomenon."

Don't cut and paste this into the search box as shown below..

Instead, you need to break down the research question into the key parts.  We'll take an easier subject to use as an example in the 'expert searching' section later on. If you take a bit longer to carefully put together a search strategy you'll save yourself time in the long run and get far better results.  It's worth taking into account the following:

  • Synonyms
  • Endings of words
  • Phrases
  • Abbreviations
  • American vs English spellings

We'll have a look at these in turn. You've got the choice of watching the video below or reading the information in sections on the page - whichever you prefer. 


A synonym is another word with the same meaning. The main problem with topic searching is that there are many words which can be used to describe the same topic. For example, if you are looking for articles about drug addiction an author could have used any of the following words or phrases: drug addiction, drug abuse, substance abuse, street drugs, narcotics, heroin use/abuse etc.

Ideally, you should use as many synonyms as possible in your search strategy, particularly if you're having difficulty finding enough information.  

This example might help clarify that.  Searching in a well-known image website for car boot finds this image:

flowers grown in car boot



but not this one:empty car trunk


The reason is that the first image (and the more interesting one) has been catalogued with the UK word 'boot' and the second one with the USA word 'trunk'.  The only way to find both is to search for both words. 

If you have difficulty thinking of synonyms, start with one journal article that is relevant to your topic and have a look at the keywords that have been assigned to it. (Most databases pick out keywords from the articles they host and you will find these listed in the details for the article when you open it up in the database.) You can usually do this in Library databases by viewing the full record. It's a great way to find additional keywords that you haven't yet considered.

article in ScopusHere's an example of an article found in Scopus:


Clicking on the article title opens the full record where the keywords can be seen. Keywords in Scopus


Word endings

Many Library databases and Google will automatically find a simple plural for you. For example, if you type in drugmany databases will search for drug or drugs. Some will attempt to find other word endings too, but with varying levels of success. For example, if you type in drug addiction will you find articles with the phrase drug addict?  We recommend that you take account of different word endings in your search strategy so you don't miss anything.  

Most databases use a special character to represent none or any number of letters, called a truncation symbol. It is usually an asterisk *.

all possible word endings for addict  This is a great time saving trick.

Phrase searching

A phrase is two or more words linked together in a particular order, for example football match, social work. Most databases will allow you to search for a phrase, ensuring that your keywords appear next to each other in the order that you want. Entering the phrase in inverted commas (double quotes " ") will normally work, but check your specific database help guide to be certain. For example:

"General practitioner" will help you to find articles about GP practices.  If you do not use quotes you could find articles on any type of practitioner, that just happen to have the commonly used word word 'general' in the title or abstract.


Is there a common abbreviation for your search topic? The author of an article may have used the abbreviation instead of the full term, so you need to look for both:

  • CSR or corporate social responsibility
  • ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • UFO or unidentified flying object

American vs English spelling

USA and British flag combinedJournals published in Europe will normally use UK English spellings but journals published in North America will use US English spellings. If you want to find all the articles, you need to take different spellings into account. Here are some common differences in spellings:

US English generally uses fewer vowels:

  • Color / colour
  • Fetus / foetus
  • Archeology / archaeology

US English often uses 'z' where UK English uses 's' near the end of a word:

  • Analyze / analyse
  • Marketize / marketise

US English sometimes uses 'er' where UK English uses 're':

  • Meter / metre
  • Fiber / fibre

US English sometimes uses one L near the end of a word where UK English uses two:

  • Labeled / labelled
  • Canceled / cancelled

Now we can look at 'expert searching' next page