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The Research Process

Identify Search Words

Throwing an entire sentence into a search bar will often give you a lot of irrelevant results that are a waste of time to look through. The key to quicker, more accurate searching in a library database is the search words you use.

Step 1: List words from your topic

List the best 2-4 words from your research topic or question. These words should be nouns.

Example topic: "How does bicycle commuting impact the health of individuals and the community?"


Possible search words for this topic are:

  • bicycle commuting
  • health
  • individuals
  • community

Step 2: Find Additional Terms

Sometimes researchers use different words to describe the same topic. To get the best search results, you need to use the words that the researchers do:

  • Choose a relevant library database.
  • Search for your original search words one at a time.
  • Scan through your results to see if a different word or phrase is used to describe the same thing.
  • If you find any new words or phrases, add them to your original list of possible search words.

Using the same example topic as above and searching in the database Academic Search Complete using one word at a time, additional search words can be found.

Original search word Additional Search words
bicycle commuting
  • bicycle facilities
  • cycling
  • bicycles
  • bicycle sharing programs
  • bicycle lanes
  • public health
  • health behavior
  • health status indicators
  • well-being
  • health promotion
  • air pollution & health
individuals The word "individuals" wasn't descriptive enough and produced too many irrelevant results. This is not a good search word and should not be used.
community The word "community" produced too many irrelevant results. The phrase "community health" also produced the wrong type of research. It may be best to use various combinations of the "bicycle commuting" and "health" words and just look for individual or community health outcomes, rather than search specifically for "individuals" or "community."

Even after your initial searching, you may find another good search word later on. Add it to your list!


Print and use the worksheet below to help you identify search words from your topic and additional, related words you could use while searching.