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Database Search Skills: Select Keywords

Introduction to keywords

Keywords, also commonly called search terms, are the words that you enter into the database search boxes. They represent the main concepts of your research topic and are the words used in everyday life to describe the topic. Without the right keywords, you may have difficulty finding the articles that you need.

Selecting keywords is a multi-step process that involves:

  • identifying the main concepts of your topic
  • brainstorming synonyms and antonyms that could also be used to describe your topic
  • spell out abbreviations


It is very rare that your first search will bring back perfect results. It takes trial and error to determine which keywords work best for your topic. Be prepared to run multiple searches in your quest for the keywords that will help you find the materials you need.

Turn your topic into keywords

When doing an internet search in Google or Bing, you can enter your complete research question in the search box and get a bunch of results. However, if you enter your entire research question in the Library databases, you probably won't get any results. This is because the library databases look for the exact words that you enter in the search box(es). If the database can't find all of the words that you entered in the search boxes in the information about an article, it won't bring back any results. That's why it's important to search only for the main parts of your topic.

Here is an example of a research question:

What is the relationship between test performance and the retention of ESL students?

The keywords for this topic are listed below:

  • test performance
  • retention
  • ESL students

Avoid abstract or implied concepts

Because the databases search for the exact words that you enter, certain types of words can be unhelpful to include in your search. These include:

relationship words: words that get at the relationship between two topics

examples: compare, contrast, correlation, causation, relationship

judgment words: words that judge something to be better or worse than something else

examples: best, worst, pro, con, advantages, disadvantages


There are many ways these ideas can be expressed or even implied. Using these words in your searches may exclude relevant articles on your topic simply because they don't include the exact word that you entered. By leaving out these words, you allow the database to find all of the articles on your main topics, which you can then evaluate to see if they fit your needs.

Synonyms & antonyms

Synonyms are words that have the same or similar meaning. Antonyms are words that have the opposite meaning. Both can be helpful when trying to determine relevant keywords for your research topic.

Some topics have many different terms that can be used to describe them. For example, here are some additional keywords that could be used for test performance:

  • Tests     
  • Exams     
  • Test-Taking Skill
  • Test Anxiety     
  • Academic Achievement     
  • Test Preparation

Sometimes when you are researching a specific topic, it can also be helpful to search for the opposite of your topic. For example, if you are interested in student retention, you'll also want to look at student dropouts. Here are some possible synonyms and antonyms for student retention:

  • Student Persistence     
  • Graduation     
  • Dropouts
  • School Holding Power     
  • Student Attrition     
  • Dropout Prevention


Abbreviations are shortened forms of words or phrases. For example, PTSD is an abbreviation for post-traumatic stress disorder. When searching the library databases, you'll always want to spell out abbreviations and search for the complete word or phrase. 


Searching for both the abbreviation and the complete word or phrase will help ensure you are finding all of the relevant results. You can do this by connecting the terms with OR.

Do not include parenthesis when searching for both the abbreviation and the full name.

Example: If you are looking for information on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), you would search for: Cognitive Behavior Therapy OR CBT

Here are examples of abbreviations used in different fields of study:
Abbreviation Complete Phrase
ESL English as a Second Language
EFL English as a Foreign Language
SWOT Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats
OCD Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
ADHD Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder