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Getting Started with Research: Keywords

Keywords Are Key!

moon with misty clouds in front

Image by RSvB is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

When you search in academic databases including MCC Library OneSearch, keywords give you the best search results. Next time you search, instead of typing in a long phrase such as "all the research that shows evidence to prove there's no life on the moon,"  try keywords.

A better search about lunar life would use keywords and look like this:

"life on the moon" and research

Research 101: Searching Is Strategic (3:14)

A Step-by-step Sample Search


  • Change your research question into keywords or search words, like this:
    Question: Is there any connection between legal drinking age and crime rates?
  • Choose a few important words as your initial search words: drinking age, crime 
  • To find many forms of a search word, for example to find crime or crimes or criminal, use an * after the beginning of the word (this is called truncation): crim* (will find crime, crimes, criminal but also Crimea, so think about the possibilities when you use truncation)
  • Use  "   "  to keep words together as a phrase: "drinking age" 
  • Link your terms with AND to find articles that mention all of your search words, Link them with OR to find any of a list of similar words, putting those words inside parentheses (  ):

    "drinking age" and (crim* or felon* or misdemeanor*)

Keep in mind that you will probably need to try different keywords to find sources, and depending on your topic, you may need to do different searches entirely. For example, if you plan to write a paper comparing lowering the drinking age with some other intervention to reduce crime, it may not work well to combine all those things in one keyword search. 

Searching successfully

You may have to put search terms together in different ways to find sources for a paper. Students sometimes tell us they have searched the library and found nothing -- we always recommend trying different keywords. Follow these steps to try again if you have not had a successful search:

1. Try searching in a reference database like Credo, or do an internet search and get an overview of the topic you are researching.

2. Write down "key" words that might help you search -- the words that are used to describe your topic.

3. Search again, using the tips below to format your search. Experiment with different key words.

This works just about every time! It is often better to start out with fewer words in your search and then narrow your results by adding terms.  And remember we are always here to help! Contact a librarian and we'll be happy to assist you with your search. 

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