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Keyword Searching: Finding Articles on Your Topic: Searching Basics

What you will learn

This guide will introduce you to the skills and techniques you need to successfully find articles in research databases. Follow the tabs on the left through the guide; they cover the skills and techniques you need for searching, including search strategy, using Boolean command terms, index fields, and search limiters to make your search more precise.

Why are keywords important?

Keywords are the search terms that you enter into the database to describe the topic of items that you want to retrieve.  The database will word-match your keywords against the text of the article, and deliver results that match what you enter.

You can tell the database how to look for those words:  

  • Do you want it to find the word anywhere in the whole article, or only in specific fields such as the title or the abstract? 
  • How should it combine your keywords – should it look for all of the keywords?  
  • Can it look for any of the synonyms that you provide?

The great benefit of keyword searching is the precision. You can develop focused, precise searches in a library database, and get exactly what you need. It just takes some practice to become an expert searcher.

The databases can only word match. Databases look for the exact words and phrases you type in. 

This means you must:

  • break your topic into individual keywords.
  • brainstorm the words an author might use.
  • avoid phrases.  Unless your phrase happens to match the article exactly, the database won’t retrieve it.

See the Keyword Search Strategy page to learn how.

Define your topic

A good library research topic usually contains 2-3 concepts. It is often in the form of a research question or statement.

Topics with only 1 concept or many concepts are hard to research.

Look at these examples for how to break a topic into concepts. We will use the concepts as keywords. See how the outcome changes when you have more or fewer concepts in a search topic:

Topic Number of Concepts Outcome

Good: Impact of obesity on the development of Type II Diabetes

obesity and Type II Diabetes= 2 34 results in CINAHL Plus with Full Text database

Good: How do high school dropouts rate their self-efficacy?

high school and dropouts and self-efficacy= 3 16 results in ERIC database
Bad: Obesity Obesity= 1 12,451 results in CINAHL Plus with Full Text database
Bad: Do conflicts with 9th grade homeroom teachers result in students in Boston dropping out of school? 9th grade and homeroom and teachers and students and Boston and drop out= 6 0 results in ERIC database

Be Aware: Are you trying to support your personal opinion? Scholars focus on measurable research, and work to avoid bias. Your opinion may not be researched, or the research may support a different conclusion.

Understand the database search page

Databases may be confusing, but understanding how databases work will help your research skills.

There are three search components in most databases:


Watch this video to learn the basics of database searching.

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