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Systematic searching: 3. Coming up with keywords

Coming up with keywords

Once you have established the main subject areas or groups of concepts, you can start brainstorming what are known as keywords. Keywords are terms of scientific colloquialisms that are used when talking about a topic. In order to get the most comprehensive search results, you need to think about as many synonyms and parallel concepts as possible, topic by topic. Keep in mind that you are likely to find more new search terms as your work progresses. 

A Word file might be helpful in keeping up to date the search terms and the search phrases you formulate.

Help with choosing keywords

In principle, you can use any source to help you come up with keywords, wherever you can find relevant vocabulary.

  • experts, teachers, instructors
  • Subject heading lists, also known as controlled vocabularies or thesauri, such as
  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • databases (preliminary searches)
  • books
  • internet 
  • Wikipedia
  • other articles on a topic
  • Tools, e.g. PubReMiner

Planning and search terms guide might also provide advice in choosing keywords.

Why is it important to come up with many keywords?

  • Different terms for the same topic may be used in different continents and different disciplines
  • Words may have slightly different spellings, e.g. American English vs. British English

Must abbreviations be used as search terms?

  • As a rule, abbreviations do not need to be included in the search terms, as they are almost always written in full in the abstract. In addition, especially in multidisciplinary databases, an abbreviation may refer to several different things, which can lead to a large number of irrelevant results. 

Example topic

Nursing students' hand hygiene skills


Concept 1 Concept 2  Concept 3
student nurses handwashing competence
nursing students hand washing skills
nursing pupils hand hygiene knowledge
pupil nurses hand sanitation know-how
nursing education  hand sanitization knowhow
hand disinfection
hand cleansing
hand cleaning
surgical scrubbing

PubMed: Identifying Search Terms


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