Skip to Main Content

Research Skills Tutorial: 1.2 Searching with Keywords

Intended to help you develop the skills required to complete research assignments

What are Keywords?

Keywords are words or short phrases that represent the main ideas in your research topic or question.

In Google, you can search using full sentences. Library databases are not as smart as Google and do not understand full sentences, spelling mistakes or conversational language.

Instead, you have to consider the words that authors are using the write about a topic. 

Profile Photo
Joe Haigh
Contact: 604-683-8360 ext. 254

Test Your Knowledge!

Which search will get you better results in the library's databases on the topic of racial profiling in America?
Causes and effects of racial profiling in America: 102 votes (19.14%)
"Racial Profiling" AND America: 393 votes (73.73%)
racial profiling OR America: 38 votes (7.13%)
Total Votes: 533

Brainstorming Keywords

Brainstorming Keywords

To come up with keywords, identify the most important words in your research question or topic.

Does racial profiling against black men in America play a role in increasing poverty within black communities?

In the research question above, the most important keywords are: "racial profiling," "America, "poverty" and "black communities." 

You could start searching the library's databases with just these keywords, but you may need to expand your search by brainstorming related words for each keyword. These could be: 

  • Narrow words
  • Broader words
  • Ideas that are related to your topic 
  • Synonyms (words that mean the same thing)

Take a look at the table below to see what other words we could use for 2 of our keywords. 

Keyword 1: Racial profiling Keyword 2: America
Broader: Racism Synonym: USA, United States
Broader: Racial discrimination Broader: North America
Synonym: Ethnic profiling Narrower: New York

As you search for sources using the keywords, you will identify new keywords from abstracts, subject terms and titles. You can revise your searches with new keywords and continue the process until you find relevant sources. 

Searching with Keywords

Combining Your Keywords

Many of the library's databases allow you to combine keywords using AND and OR.

Using AND to combine keywords will retrieve articles that include both of the terms, while using OR will retrieve articles that include either of the terms.

Look at the example below, which demonstrates how you could combine keywords in Academic Search Complete.

Searching with Synonyms

Synonyms are great to use when searching in databases, such as Academic Search Complete, because databases only bring back results which contain the exact words you typed in. If you don't include synonyms you could miss out on some relevant sources.

Synonyms can be combined using OR, as in the example below:


Confused? Watch the video below by UBC Libraries to learn how to use keywords in a library database. The same search strategies will work in the library's main search.