HEA 310


What are Keywords?

Keywords are the terms (words and phrases) used to search electronic databases, online catalogs, and the Web for information; however, unlike when searching the Web, we might ned to be more careful and strategic with our search terms. 

To more easily identify keywords, frame your topic into a statement or question and then select the most important concepts. These are the terms you will use in your search.

For example, in the research question "Are prescription drugs for depression addictive?" the keywords might be::

  • "prescription drugs"
  • depression
  • addictive

Choosing Keywords

Suggestion 1: It’s most effective to keep your database search simple, using up to two or three keywords or phrases. Searching is a process. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t successful at first; try new keyword combinations.

Suggestion 2 : We can’t always know exactly how the author has chosen to express their concept, so always try to think of synonyms (terms that mean the same, or almost the same, thing) even before you start searching. For example:

  • HIV vs AIDS
  • colleges vs universities vs higher education

Suggestion 3: If you are searching for an article in an online database and your search produces too many results, you can reduce and focus your results list by:

  • adding or changing keywords to make your topic more specific
  • adding Limiters such as:
    • Date Range (Published Date From)
    • Scholarly/Peer-reviewed  journals.

Suggestion 4: If you get too few results, consider reducing the number of search terms or limiters or trying keywords that are broader in concept. For example:

  • higher education is a broader keyword than universities or colleges

Boolean Operators

Boolean Operators tell online databases how to link your search terms together to obtain specific results:

AND: each individual result must include all terms. Narrows search results by telling the database you only want to see results that use both terms

  • drugs AND athletesResults will include both terms, not just drugs or just athletes

OR: each individual result can include either term. Broadens search results by telling the database that you want to see results that use either term

  • colleges OR universities: Useful when searching synonymous terms, or terms that have the same or nearly the same meaning within your topic (saves having to do separate searches)

NOT: excludes terms. Narrows search results by telling the database to exclude the term after the Boolean operator NOT

  • cirrhosis NOT alcohol: Will return results about cirrhosis, but not results about alcohol-related cirrhosis

Phrase Searching

Phrase Searching is using quotation marks to tell the database to search words together as a phrase rather than separately as individual terms. For example:

  • “prescription drug”
  • “Madeleine Leininger”
  • “evidence-based practice”

Some databases assume phrase searching even without the quotation marks, but making a habit of always using quotation marks to "force" phrase searching where applicable is a good practice.


Truncation is the process of forcing the online database to search for a root word with varying endings. Most online databases use an asterisk (*) or question mark (?) symbols; you can check the help section in any database to confirm that database's truncation symbol.

For example, placing a the truncation symbol at the end of the word diet:

  • diet* returns results that use the word diet, diets, dieting, dietary, dietician, dieticians, etc.

What is the benefit? If you use truncation, you are able to save time by doing one search with the the root word and get results with the various endings, allowing you to do one search instead of many searches.