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Research Process: Generating Keywords

This tutorial aims to help develop effective library research skills and critical thinking skills in all courses at Prince George's Community College.

Generating Keywords

This section will focus on the creation of keywords. An example question will be analyzed and broken down for keywords/search terms. 

From the introduction, you know that a keyword is the concept that the research question is about. It can be one word or various words, called key phrases. Put simply, keywords are the words that are important in the question.

Let's pretend your professor has given you the following instructions:

Parents and many educators are concerned about how much time children are spending in front of a television screen playing video games. They are concerned about the negative effects of video games. For this paper you are to conduct research using the library’s online databases. Take a stance on this issue and write an argument either for or against letting children play video games. Make sure to use at least four references.

Now we will analyze these instructions. What keyword or search terms can you identify from the assignment instructions? Immediately, we can identify the following terms (in bold):

Parents and many educators are concerned about how much time CHILDREN are spending in front of a television screen playing VIDEO GAMES. They are concerned about the negative EFFECTS OF VIDEO GAMES. For this paper you are to conduct research using the library's online databases. Take a stance on this issue and write an argument either for or against letting children play video games. Make sure to use at least four references.

 Now we have three keywords/key-phrases:

  • children
  • video games
  • effects of video games

These keywords can be re-arranged into two research topics:

  • video games and children
  • effects of video games in children

These might be a good start, but limiting yourself to three search terms or two research topics might not turn up the articles you’re hoping for.


5 W's and the H

Another good way to create more keywords/search terms or to narrow down your topic is to use the 5 W's and the H idea generation strategy. In this approach we ask a series of questions that will expand our topic. These questions are: who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Let's explore this strategy using our previous example of video games and children.

  • What is the topic?
    • The effects of video games in children
  • Who is concerned?
    • Parents, educators, children
  • When is this taking place?
    • You can choose to explorer this topic as it happens now or in the past
  • Where is this happening?
    • Are you looking at information in the United States? In some other country? In Maryland? In your city? 
  • Why are parents and educators concerned?
    • They fear video games have negative effects
  • How are video games affecting children?
    • Will you focus on the psychological aspect? Social?  

It might be helpful to use a graphic organizer. Below you'll see an example of the 5 W's and the H - where the main topic is placed on the middle and the 6 questions are spread out along the sides. (You can find some helpful graphic organizer's at the Enchanted Learning website.)

keyword graphic organizer

Keywords from the 5 W's and the H

Using just the answers from the questions, we could add to our list with the following terms. Keep in mind that we will probably want to keep “video games” and possibly “children” in the search terms, as they are the main focus of the instructions.

  • Video games and children
  • Effects of video games in children
  • Parents, educators, and video games
  • Increasing/rising video game sales and children
  • Video games in the U.S.A.
  • Fear of video games
  • Negative effects of video games
  • Pros and cons of video games

Organizing the Search Terms

To avoid being overwhelmed by so many terms, organize them. Take a moment to organize the terms by re-ordering them by priority, where the first one is top priority. 

Below is an example of the terms re-ordered by priority using a graphic organizer. Keep in mind this is one interpretation of assigning priority to the terms. It does not mean that this is the only way they could be organized.

keyword chart

Follow these links to learn more about the 5 W's and the H strategy. 

Learn to generate effective search terms for database or web searching in this tutorial. Video tutorial created by Jen Klaudinyi, Cooperative Library Instruction Project (CLIP). 

Learn to generate effective search terms for internet or database searching.