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ENGL 1010 - Holt

Keywords and Subject Headings

How to come up with keywords: 


1. Look at your research question and choose 2 to 4 important words or terms: 

   Example: What is the impact of confirmation bias on political web searches


2. Think of synonyms for these terms: 

confirmation bias web search politics
bias Google politic* (politic, politics, political)
persuasion "search engine" election
confirm* algorithm  
"attitude polarization" "search terms"  


3. Mix and match these terms in a database. 

  • Tip: Only use your keywords, and not a full sentence, to search. 
  • Tip: Use Boolean Operators and the other search strategies in the boxes below for more effective searching


How to find subject headings: 

1. Use your keywords to do a search in a database and look at the results to see subject headings suggested for each article. 

  • Tip: You can look in the Subject filter on the left side of the a results page to see the most common subjects in your results (and select one or more to narrow your search)

2. Take a look in the thesaurus of a database. 

     Example: Academic Search Complete has a Subject Term thesaurus in the top left 

3. Look online at the Library of Congress Subject Headings or Ask a Librarian

Boolean Operators

Boolean Operators are words that you use between your keywords/search terms to connect them in some way: 

  • AND is the default, assumed connection when you search in Google and databases. If you type video games, for example, what the search engine sees is video AND games.  
  • OR helps you broaden your search by including either or both terms in the search. For example, if you type dog OR cat, your search results will contain things about only dogs, only cats, or both cats and dogs. 
  • NOT helps you eliminate certain keywords or subjects that might come up in your results. For example, if you search for elections NOT Presidential, your results will contain election results that are not from the Presidential election, like local or regional elections.

If you use PARENTHESES around terms, the search engine will look for the words in the parentheses first and then look for any additional terms. This can be helpful with you have similar phrases or different spellings for a phrase or term. For example, if you search for (nonnative OR non-native OR non native) AND English speakers, you will get results searching first for the different variations of the word non-native and then English speakers, putting emphasis on non-native first. 


Other Search Strategies

  • Use an ASTERISK to search for variations on a root word. 

For example, if you search for writ*, you will get: 
write, writes, writer, written, writable, write-up, write-back, etc. 

  • Use QUOTATION MARKS to keep a phrase together. 

For example, if you search for "video games" you'll get things related to that phrase (games that you can play on a TV or computer screen), whereas if you search for video games without the quotation marks, you might get results on videos (movies), board games, or other areas that aren't quite what you were searching for. 

Be careful though, quotation marks are only for phrases that are at least two words. If you try to put quotation marks around a single word, it might confuse a database and you won't get as many relevant sources. 

Confirmation Bias

Be careful with the terms that you use to search, especially with controversial topics. Sometimes, you might not even realize that the terms you use are leading to biased sources. Often times using terms like the ones in the examples below lead to what is known as CONFIRMATION BIAS, where the terms we use lead to results that verify the thoughts we already have on a topic. 


  • Instead of Obamacare, try searching for the Affordable Care Act. "Obamacare" is a nickname for the "Affordable Care Act" (the original name of the healthcare act). 
  • Instead of Global Warming, try Climate Change. While global warming is a common term, it comes with its own assumptions, whereas climate change is more all encompassing. 
  • Instead of Assisted Suicide, try Euthanasia. Using the term assisted suicide might lead to sources that focus more on the moral or emotional reactions to the process than the actual act itself. 
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