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American History 148

Identify Key and Related Terms

Before you dive in, you might want to sketch out a "mind map" of your research idea.  Think about key concepts about your topic and ways this could be described.  For example racial justice could also be talked about as racial equality, racial equity, or social justice, climate change is often discussed as global warming, free speech is often described as first amendment rights or censorship, teenagers are also referred to as adolescents, teens, youth, etc.  Using different concepts can focus or expand your research results.

Think about why this matters to you and why it matters to your reader.  Good starting question to ask yourself: Who is impacted?  What is happening and why?  What are the causes?   What are the consequences or results?   How could things be different?  Finally, and very important, always ask and answer in your paper or presentation: So What?   Answering all these questions helps your focus your topic, come up with keywords, get your point across and (bonus!) makes your research more interesting.

Here is a short video (about 2 minutes) from Kansas University that gives further insight into key and related (alternate) terms:


  • Keyword / Key Term Searching  is a really important skill to develop when using the Library databases and the more you do it the easier it is!  Keywords are perhaps similar to a search you might type in Amazon for example--Amazon is just another type of database and works in the same way, you enter in keywords and filter your results as needed as opposed to Google which is a "search engine" and more focused on "natural language".

 Tip: Keep in mind that keywords are tricky, they will evolve and you'll likely come across better ones as you begin searching. The more you search and learn about your topic, the easier it will be to develop keywords.


Search Terms, What Are They Good For? Absolutely Everything!

  • Why do they matter?
    • Good search terms will help you get better quality results in a shorter period of time. 
  • How do I develop terms?
    • One way to start developing your search terms is to pull the significant main ideas out of your research question. 
  • What else can I do? 
    • ‚ÄčOnce you've established some search terms, you can connect them with the terms AND , OR, NOT. 
  • See the following examples - Significant search terms are bolded and these are what you might plug in to a database as terms to get started in your search.

Topic: The Great Depression

  1. What was the impact of The Great Depression on government policies in the 1930's and 1940's?
    Your search string might look like thisGreat Depression AND government policies AND 1930-1940.

  2. In what ways did the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act contribute to The Great Depression and how did it lead to tariff policy change in the years immediately following?
    Your search string might look like this Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act AND Great Depression  WITH A SEPARATE SEARCH FOR U.S. tariff policy change and 1940

This video explains more on building good "search strings". "Search strings" are literally how keywords are strung together to focus your search.  


Clackamas Community College, "Create better searches with AND, OR, & NOT"

Work Smarter Not Harder-Search Strategies and Common Research Pitfalls

Search strategy overview - databases Work smarter, not harder.

Use these tips when you search in WWCC Library databases. Your search results will be more focused and relevant to your topic!

  1. Use quotation marks around phrases and search terms to search for the words in the exact order you would like, instead of separately.
    Basic search, "emotional support animals"
  2. Use different search boxes for each different idea that makes up your overall topic.
    Advanced search


Too Many Results? Too Few Results?
  1. Add in additional search terms.
  2. Limit to peer-reviewed journals.
  3. Limit by date.
  4. Limit by subject.
  5. Limit to items with full-text availability.
  6. Change the search box dropdown menu to "Abstract" or "Subject."
  1. Verify that you spelled everything correctly.
  2. Erase unnecessary search terms.
  3. Try different search terms.
  4. Use the Boolean operator OR between search terms.
  5. Remove any limits you may have added to an earlier search.
  6. Change the search box dropdown menu to "All Text" or "Entire Document."

Need help with too many or too few results?  You know what to do!  Call, email, chat with, or stop by and see a librarian!