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Research Process: Keywords

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


Learning basic search strategies is the key to effectively and efficiently searching the online catalog, online databases, and the Web.

The first step is to identify the keywords that are the most important in defining the topic.

Using a research database is different than using an online search engine, like Google. For this type of search you might copy and paste the research question in the search box and click on "search". You might get some good results that are related to your question or you might not. 

Research databases do not work that way. Databases use keywords when you do your search, which is why it is so important to have a good selection before starting your research.

So, what is a keyword?

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.


Not all authors use the same terms when they write. One author can refer to one concept by one word, while another uses another word. Having synonyms for your keywords will improve your results when you search the databases by not restricting yourself to one word.

For Example: Let's say you have the following assignment: Identify and analyze the theme for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado". One popular theme for this short story is revenge. One article may refer to the word revenge, while another may use the word retribution. These two words are synonyms. By using both of them as keywords, you'll get more results in your search.  

But, what is a synonym? 

A synonym is a word that has similar meaning to another, but is spelled differently. For example: big-large, tiny-small, joyful-glad, or short-brief


Now that you know about synonyms, how do you find them? A thesaurus is a great source for finding synonyms. Like dictionaries and encyclopedias, thesauruses can be general or subject specific. 

So, what is a thesaurus? 

A thesaurus is a book that lists words in groups of synonyms and related concepts. You can find thesauruses in the Reference Section of the library or you can use one online at

These websites provide further explanation of keywords and how to find them: