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COM101/111: Introduction to Research & APA Citation

What are keywords?

Keywords are words or phrases which best describe the main ideas of your research topic/question. Before you start searching, it's helpful to brainstorm and make a list of keywords which you can use. You can combine these keywords and perform different searches on the library website, databases, and Google.

Authors and subject experts may use different words, terms, or phrases to describe your topic. You may not have the best keywords for your topic when you begin searching.  As you continue to do different searches, you'll discover more keywords within the sources in your search results. These can include words which are related to your topic, synonyms for your topic, and words subject experts use to describe your topic. Take note of these new terms since you can use them to search your topic.

Example: Brainstorming keywords


A student has come up with the following research question:
How does lack of sleep impact college students' academic performance?


Step 1: Let's start by figuring out the main ideas or keywords for the research question:

Keyword 1 Keyword 2 Keyword 3
lack of sleep "college students" academic performance
If you want to search an exact phrase or term, surround the words in quotation marks. In our example, we placed quotes around "college students" since want to find sources which mention this exact phrase. Depending on your keywords, it may not be necessary to add quotes around some phrases. For example, if we put quotes around the phrase academic performance, we may miss out on discovering other relevant sources. For example, a source may discuss performance in academic courses, but doesn't use the exact phrase academic performance. If you're unsure, try searching the keyword with and without quotation marks to see which option provides the best search results.

Step 2: Since others may use different words and phrases to describe the topics, let's think of other keywords we can use. This can include synonyms and related terms for the research topic.

Keyword 1 Keyword 2 Keyword 3
  • lack of sleep
  • "sleep deprivation"
  • sleeplessness
  • "college students"
  • "post-secondary students"
  • "young adults"
  • academic performance
  • grades
  • "grade point average"


Step 3: Once we have a list of keywords, we can create different combinations we can use on different searches. For example:

  Keyword Keyword Keyword
Search 1

"sleep deprivation"

"college students"


Search 2 "sleep deprivation" "college students" academic performance
Search 3 sleeplessness "post-secondary students" grades

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