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Tackling Information Problems (TIP): Identify search terms

Information Literacy tutorial for undergraduate students

Identifying search terms

Search terms are words that you type into the search box of the database to describe the topic of items that you want to retrieve. The database will word-match your search terms against the citation information, abstract, or the text of the article, and deliver results that match what you enter.

 Subject-related search terms
To find good subject-related search terms, follow these steps:​

  1. Identify the important concepts of your topic.
    Let's use the following topic as an example:

    How does the presence of women in corporate leadership positions affect firm performance?  

    The important concepts would be 'women', 'leadership', and 'firm performance'.

  2. Make a list of search terms that describe these concepts. 
    Determine whether there are synonyms, related terms, or other variations of the search terms that should be included. Think of different spellings of words, e.g. behavior/behaviour, labor/labour, organisation/organization. The best way is to construct a table containing your concepts:
    Main concepts of the topic Search terms: Synonyms / related terms
    Concept #1 = women female / females
    ex / sexes
    sex differences
    gender differences
    sex related differences
    gender related differences
    gender balance
    Concept #2 = corporate leadership leadership 
    leader / leaders

    leadership style / leadership styles
    management style / management styles
    management qualities
    manager / managers 
    director / directors
    Concept #3 = firm performance performance
    corporate performance
    business performance
    company performance
    enterprise performance
    corporate profits

➋ Other types of search terms
Search terms that may prove to be useful include:

  • authors' names.
    • If you have already found relevant scholarly articles on your topic: search for the authors' names. Most likely they have published more on the subject.
    • Also, search for authors who are frequently cited. 
  • terms describing a scientific method.
  • any associated theories you may be using for your theoretical foundation.

Keep your search terms list updated over time

Revise your list of search terms during the actual search process by adding keywords and subject terms that have been assigned to relevant sources. Here's an example from the Web of Science database. The marked keywords 'gender diversity' and 'business profitabilty' (in this case provided by the author of the article) are very useful new search terms for the example topic.

Finding search terms: Tips

Having trouble thinking of terms  related to your topic? If you don't know much about your subject yet, it can be challenging to discover the right words to search for. 

  • Make use of search options provided by library databases, such as suggestions (displayed when a search query is entered), author keywords (keywords provided by the author of a particular article), or a thesauruses (a very useful tool for finding search terms). Databases with a thesaurus include: PsycINFO, Sociological Abstracts, ABI/INFORM Global. PubMed/Medline has 'MESH terms'. You can typically find the thesaurus at the top of the Advanced search page for the database. [More on thesauruses under tab 4.] 
  • Try Merriam-Webster's thesaurus: a great resource for tracking down synonyms and related terms.
  • Another useful thesaurus: