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Criminal Justice

Developing Keywords

Identify the important nouns or main ideas in your research question. 

  • Research Question: What is the perception of safety on college campuses by students?

Generate synonyms for each main term, along with words that are narrower, broader, and related.

  • Safety: violence, fear, security, crime, security,
  • college campuses: university, higher education
  • Student perception: student attitudes, behavior, judgment, awareness, recognition

Start searching and modify your keywords as necessary. 

  • Pay attention to titles, abstracts, and headings used in the results you find helpful.
  • Some databases provide lists of subject terms, subject headings, or keywords for individual sources. See if you can find those to help add to your own list.

Tip: Keep in mind that keywords are tricky, they will evolve and you'll likely come across better ones as you begin searching. The more you search and learn about your topic, the easier it will be to develop keywords.

What's the difference between keyword and subject term searching?

When you want to search for a topic, you can search using words you think of that describe your concept - this is called Keyword Searching. You can also search using words that the database uses to index and describe your topic - this is called Subject Searching. You can think of subject searching as being similar to using the index in the back of a book to find exactly what you are looking for.

Keyword Search Subject Search
  • Good place to start if you don't know the terms a catalog or database uses for your topic
  • Best way to ensure you get all applicable documents in a catalog or article database
  • Keywords are any significant word or phrase you think of to describe your topic
  • Search terms (subject headings) must come from the database's thesaurus
  • Use when searching for a new concept or jargon - for example, twitter or Pinterest
  • Use when you are searching for a broad concept, such as human trafficking
  • Searches for terms anywhere in the record (database)
  • Searches for terms in the subject field only
  • Broadens search results but may retrieve irrelevant materials
  • Narrows search results but retrieves all relevant materials available
  • Usually the default search
  • Usually available from advanced search screens
  • More flexible search
  • Less flexible search
  • May end up with too many or too few results depending on keywords used
  • Need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term


Adapted from CCCOnline (3/20)

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