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Navigating the Research Process

What are keywords?

Now that you have your topic, whether you got to think of it yourself or choose from a set list, it's time to think about how you will search for information about it in the library's databases. The next module "Sources: Finding them" will go into detail about what a database is and how to search. In this module, let's focus on keywords: what they are and how to think about them.

Sometimes we search Google using complete sentences, questions, or other phrases to find information or get an answer very quickly. 

To be able to do a search on a topic within the library's databases you need to think of specific words to search. If you try to put in a complete sentence or question in a database search you might get a few results or absolutely nothing. And then you will start to think that you have to change your topic because you can't find anything written about it.

Before diving into searching, you need to think strategically which includes deciding which keywords you will use in your searches. Putting in the work up front like this will save you time in the long run.

Practice: Keywords and Database Searching tutorial

More broad/More narrow

Developing keywords for searching is an exercise in stretching your vocabulary and getting you think outside of the box. 

Let's say your research question is this:

Do video games cause children to be more violent?

First, you want to pick out the main words, ideas or themes from the question. Often this means you should pay attention to the nouns:

video games children violent

These are perfectly legitimate words to then start your searching in a database. It is a good idea, however, to think about broader and/or narrower terms for the ones you are starting with. See the brainstorming table below.

video games children violent

computer games


first-person shooter games







antisocial behavior

As you can see, for video games, a broader term is computer games or gaming, but you can narrow it down with first-person shooter games or even the name of a specific game. 

Brainstorming keywords helps you develop options for your search strategy which includes multiple searches. You can't do one search and call it good. Depending on the complexity of your topic, the resources you need, and what information you are actually finding, you will have to do multiple searches using variations of your keywords. Also, as you learn more about your topic, you will think of more questions to answer that are related. You will need to do searches on those new aspects as well.

Important note:
As you can probably already tell, researching something at the college level is different than just doing a Google search. The most important thing to realize is that this whole research process thing is not a straight line. You don't really go step by step to the end. You might have to circle back around to previous steps a few times.

Strategies for Brainstorming

Concept maps can help you organize your thoughts and better connect related ideas. This will help you develop ideas about specific aspects of your topic, and brainstorm keywords to use in your searches.

One of the library's resources can help with exactly that. 

Credo Reference is kind of like Wikipedia, except the pages cannot be freely edited. Expert researchers and writers have compiled information into topic pages that make it easier to find good information about a wide variety of topics.

Another tool from Credo is their Mind Maps. These are concept maps that you can click through to discover new connections between ideas and find articles about them in the database. Below are some screenshots of what a Credo Mind Map looks like.

The first image is of the top of the Credo Homepage. There are several options for the main search bar, including Mind Map. Select the Mind Map from the drop down menu to explore using concept maps.

Here is an example of a search for "climate change." The Mind Map appears in the middle of the screen with related concepts connected with lines. On the right-hand side you find links to resources within Credo that have information about that topic.

When you click on a related concept, more ideas come up, as you can see in the last picture. 

Credo Reference Mind Maps can help you brainstorm ideas about your topic, making it easier for you to narrow things down. The articles and Topic Pages will also give you the background information you need to get your research started off right.

Of course, you can do any brainstorming on your own, without using Credo. 

Here are a couple of worksheets to help you.