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How to do a Literature Search: Choosing keywords

Choosing keywords: things to think about

It may be tempting to simply type the title of your project into the database search box, but this will not give you the best results!  You need to carefully put together a search strategy taking into account the following:

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

On this page we will look at these in turn. The following page will look at how to construct a search strategy.


A synonym is another word with the same meaning.  The main problem with topic searching is that there are many words which different authors can use 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.  

If you have difficulty thinking of synonyms, start with one article that is relevant to your topic and view the full record in the library database.  It may provide added keywords that will help.

Word endings

Many Library databases, and Google, will automatically find a simple plural for you.  For example if you type in drug many 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 the database also find articles with the phrase drug addict?  We recommend that you take account of different word endings in your search strategy.  

Most databases use a special character to represent zero or any number of letters, called a truncation symbol.  It is normally an asterisk *.  

addict*  will find addict





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, in other words to insist that your keywords appear next to each other in a specific order.  Entering the phrase in 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:

  • GP or General Practitioner
  • ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • UFO or Unidentified Flying Object

American vs English spellings

Journals 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

This example might help to explain this. Searching in a well-known image website for car boot finds this image: vintage car with plants in boot but not this image: car boot

The reason is that the first image has been catalogued with the UK English word 'boot' and the second one with the American English word 'trunk'. The only way to find both images is to search for both words. 

Video: tips for keyword searching (04:38)