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COMM 430: 2016-1

Identifying search terms from your question

This example illustrates two important search tools -- Keywords and Synonyms.

Keywords and synonyms

When you look at the research question in the example, note that three words are in bold. These are the most critical important or distinguishing words in your research question.

Do NOT enter the whole research question. Unlike a Google search, a journal article database cannot sort through all the words in your research question, and the results will vary in terms of relevance to your search query (or you will get no results).  Rather, pull important terms or concepts from your question.

When you search a keyword, the database is looking ONLY for that word in that form. So when you search for "college," that word is all that  the database will return. If the author used another word, like "colleges" or "university" instead of "college" you will not see results with those words. That is why synonyms are important.

Modified from Rachel Arteaga, CSU Chico

If you are having trouble thinking of synonyms then look at the search results to try and find more relevant or more accurate keywords from the database. 

For example, if you are looking for information about teenagers, you need to remember that the author might have used words like "teens" or "adolescents" or" young adults." Each of these words will give different results because the computer only returns the word you search.

On the next page "Broaden or narrow your search" you will learn how to put synonyms together so you can find all the good results in one search.

Modified from Rachel Arteaga, CSU Chico

Identifying search terms

Student studying

Nic McPhee. (2011, Apr. 8). 2011-04-08,09 UMM CSci at MICS 2011 IMG_2907. Retrieved from Used under the Creative Commons License.


There are several strategies for identifying search terms. First, think about the topic in a general sense. Most of your groups deal with recruiting volunteers for nonprofit organizations. What kind of search terms can be associated with that? Try a combination of different search terms:

  • recruitment
  • volunteers
  • nonprofit organizations
  • motivation
  • volunteerism
  • awareness
  • donors


You'll also need to generate a list of search terms related to your individual group topic (differentiation, alumni, mentors, etc.). Sometimes it can help to organize the main ideas of your topic into a concept map. You can find some concept mapping tools below. Using a concept map is a good way to see how different parts of your research topic fit together.

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