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Module 2: Identifying a Topic

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2.5 Choosing Keywords

Prepare for searching by identifying the central concepts in your research question.

Computers are programmed to match strings of characters and spaces and do not often understand the natural language we use with each other. They can't guess what you mean, don't "read" subtexts, and are easily confused by ambiguity, so clarify for them what you will be looking for. Focus only on essential concepts.

example explanation
"media coverage of 9/11" Media cover events. Unless the media caused the event, this term is unnecessary.
advantages of home schooling over public schools Value words like "favorite," "advantage," or "better" are not useful if you need to gather evidence to help you make a decision or develop a solution. Don't just grab an opinion or the "right" answer off someone else's shelf.
dissertations about bioethics Many databases and search engines are programmed to ignore common words that don't impact a search. These are called "stopwords" and typically include terms like "the," "from," "about," "when," etc.


Earlier we discussed narrowing and broadening a research question. Vocabulary can also be broadened or narrowed to find different types of sources. This chart suggests some alternative vocabulary for the following research question:

"Should Native Americans practice religious and social customs that violate local and Federal laws?"

Key words Broader Related Narrower
Native Americans Indigenous peoples, North American history Indians, Amerinds, North American Indians Makah, Nez Perce, Cherokee, Kwakiutl, etc.
Customs Social systems, anthropology, Marriage, social relations, spirituality, rites and ceremonies,
religion, culture
Lodge house(s), hunting, whaling, potlatch, etc.
Law Criminal justice,
U.S. Constitution,
constitutional law
Legislation, crimes, treaty rights Bureau of Indian Affairs,
NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act ),
cases (e.g. Kennewick Man, Neah Bay whaling)



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