Identifying key words and smart searching

1. Key words and smart searching


Establishing the keywords that will enable you to identify texts and articles that are of most relevance to your research is crucial. 

A systematic approach is best. Have you:

  • brainstormed all of the terms which you think are relevant?

  • thought of all possible synonyms, alternative and related key words and concepts?

  • used subject dictionaries and encyclopedias to extend your list?

Source: Pixabay

Keywords really are the key! But generating a good list of relevant keywords may require some thought; creating lists of synonyms is one way of approaching this.

Applying controlled vocabulary to a subject provides a consistent method of finding information, and allows you to broaden or narrow your focus.

There are two main kinds of controlled vocabulary used in databases - subject headings and thesaurus terms.

What are subject headings?

Subject headings describe the main focus of the content of a publication, and provide terms which bring together different ways of defining a subject.

How can a thesaurus help?

Thesauri list words grouped together according to similarity of meaning.

Thesauri also list equivalent terms and narrower, broader and related terms.


Compiling a list of relevant key words is a crucial step; but there are ways to use those terms when searching a database to ensure that you get the best possible results.

One of the most powerful techniques when searching a database is Truncation. It works like this: simply add an asterisk (*) to the root of a word. 

So for example searching a database by entering the term optic* in the search box will find results that include the words:

optic, optics, optician, optical, etc.


When searching databases remember the small but important differences between British English and American English - you don't want to miss things if contributors to your subject are based across the Atlantic or there are high-profile specialist journals published in America. Using Wildcards gets over this problem.

  • characteri?ation will find characterisation and characterization: note the - this is a Wildcard search

  • colo$r will find color and colour: note the - this is also a Wildcard search

However, wildcards do not work on all databases.


Phrase searching is a powerful technique that can be used with almost all databases and library catalogues.

Phrase searching works by using "quotation marks"

If you search a database using "energy conservation" then it will retrieve results that only include that exact phrase - it could occur in the title, or, if you are using a full-text database, the phrase could occur somewhere in the main text of the article.


Use Boolean Operators to combine your search terms:

  • Using AND will narrow your search

  • Using OR will broaden your search

  • Using NOT will narrow your search

The three main Boolean Operators can be presented visually:

In order to avoid missing important references when searching databases use the  techniques we've outlined here - either singly or in combination.

Get in touch with the T&LS Team if you need help mastering any of these search techniques:  Contact the T&LS Team