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Getting Started with Research

tutorials and videos to help students gain information literacy skills for effective research.

From Research Question(s) to Keywords

One thing to keep in mind is that our focus is on using keywords in research databases rather than in a Web search such as in Google. Database searching requires a more structured approach to search them effectively. Once you have selected a topic for your research, the next step is identifying the keywords critical to describing your topic and generating more before you start searching one of the research databases

Let's say that your research question is: Does media have an impact on the self image of teenagers?

The next step is to pull out the key concepts.  This may seem simple but identifying the main concepts in the research question is important for a successful search. This question has three major concepts: Media, Self-image and Teenagers. These keywords will be the building blocks of our search. It’s best to search by keywords instead of phrases or sentences because the more words you add to a search box, the fewer results you’ll get back. You are more likely to find useful articles if you start your search with a minimal number of keywords

Note: You probably noticed the absence of “impact” as one of the keywords. “Impact” is certainly an important concept but starting out it will be of more interest to us to see what kind of publications are available on self-image, teenagers and media in total. Let’s hold “impact” in reserve in case we need to refine our search later. 

We can’t stop here with only those three keywords! There may be synonyms for your keywords that can help broaden your search or better describe your topic, not only to make your search comprehensive but to also improve your search results. Since this step can require more creativity it can be useful to brainstorm synonyms with friends or classmates. What other words can describe your main concepts? Start making a list of your alternative keywords and synonyms and have them ready when you start searching. You may need them!

It may be helpful to use a table, such as the one below to brainstorm alternative keywords/synonyms:

  Initial Topic Similar Terms Broader Terms Narrower Terms Related Terms
Your Keyword          

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