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Nursing - Information Literacy

Developing a Keyword Search

Keywords are the main concepts of your research topic and/or question. 

  • When you are searching for books and articles on your topic, you will need to select some keywords. Keywords help point your search in the right direction and are similar to the main ideas in a sentence or paragraph. The words in your research question are perfect starting points!

For example, What are the causes of global warming? The keywords are causes and global warmingBut there are other words that might help you.

Terms that mean the same thing (synonyms) are also worthwhile keywords.

  • Global warming is sometimes called climate change and drug use among athletes is sometimes called doping.  Using different terms to locate information will give you greater results.

Why Keyword Searching?  Why not just type in a phrase or sentence like you do in Google,Yahoo! or Bing?

  • Because most electronic databases store and retrieve information differently than Internet search engines.
  • A databases searches fields within a collection of records. These fields include the information commonly found in a citation plus an abstract (if available) and subject headings. Search engines search web content which is typically the full text of sources.

The bottom line: you get better results in a database by using effective keyword search strategies.

To develop an effective search strategy, you need to:

  1. determine the key concepts in your topic and
  2. develop a good list of keyword synonyms.

Because there is more than one way to express a concept or idea. You don't know if the article you're looking for uses the same expression for a key concept that you are using.

Consider: Will an author use:

  • Hypertension or High Blood Pressure?
  • Teach or Instruct?
  • Therapy or Treatment?

Don't get "keyword lock!"  Be willing to try a different term as a keyword. If you are having trouble thinking of synonyms, check a thesaurus, dictionary, or reference book for ideas.

To build an effective search for a database it is best to use keywords or short phrases which represent the main concepts of your research question.

A good strategy for building a keyword search is:

1. Begin with your research question

Topic: What role do nurses play in mental health care for children?

2. Draw out the concepts from the topic statement.  In other words, eliminate every thing but the main ideas of the question.

Main Concepts (Keywords) of Topic:

    __nursing role_____AND______mental health_________AND____ children_

Note: Searching is a process and may require trying several different combinations of keywords or short phrases. For example, you might also choose to search:  Nursing  AND role AND mental AND health AND children.

3.  Create a list of synonyms for each of the principal concepts.  Think of different ways to express the same idea (children vs. kids).  But remember that every synonym need not be an exact synonym.  Broader or related terms, even antonyms can be useful too. 


Synonyms for


Nursing role

Nursing practice

narrower terms-

Nursing AND assessment

Nursing AND care

Synonyms for


Mental health

Mental illness

mental disorders

narrower terms-



Synonyms for




narrower terms-



related terms-


4. As you go through the research process you will need to add more synonyms to your list as you encounter them.  Remember to be on the watch for new terms and to keep your keyword lists as "running lists."

5. If you would like a blank keyword worksheet to document keywords and synonyms for your own topic, click the link above to download.

Boolean searching

Understanding "Boolean" connectors is fundamental to database searching!

Boolean logic uses the operators AND and OR to connect search terms when using catalogs, databases, or a web search tool.

  • A simple search on: handwashing retrieves ALL article citations containing that term.
  • A search using AND retrieves citations with BOTH terms, e.g.: handwashing AND cross infection.
  • OR is used to connect synonyms. A search using OR retrieves citations with ANY of search terms present,
    e.g.: (cross infection OR nosocomial infection OR hospital acquired infection).

A research question with a Problem AND Intervention: Does handwashing among healthcare workers reduce hospital-acquired infection?  

Combine the two terms with AND for a preliminary literature search.