Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
COVID-19 Library Dashboard
Get the latest information on the status of library services and space.
 Ask a Question

Writing 10 (Silbaugh): Key Words & Search Terms

Reading & Composition

Key Word Chart

Look for alternate terms for each concept in your topic.

related keywords graphic

Keywords vs. Subjects

Keywords vs. Subjects
Keywords are natural language words describing your topic. Use them to start a search.   Subjects are pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" words used to describe the content (articles, books etc.) found in a database.
Keywords are flexible and can combine together in many ways.   Subjects are not as flexible in a search.  You have to know the exact controlled vocabulary terms.
Databases looks for keywords anywhere in the record (unless you tell the database otherwise).   Databases ONLY look for subjects  in the subjects / descriptors fields.  
Keywords may give you too many or too few results.  You may have to remove or add keywords.   If you have too many results from a subject search, look for the option to use a subheadings (narrower subject) under the main subject.
Keywords may give you many irrelevant results.   Subject often give you very relevant results.

Example: Search with keyword

engineering women stem 


Examples: of Subjects 

Women scientists -- Employment -- Congresses

Women in science

Feminism and science 


Research Question to Search Strategy

Identify Key Concepts and Terms

Identify the key concepts in your topic:

How do social media sites like Facebook impact teenagers' friendships with each other?

Brainstorm for related terms:

"social media"
Facebook Snapchat

young adults

social interactions

Try Academic Search Complete > Subject Terms to find subject headings for your topic.

Tips for Finding Keywords & Subject Headings

1. Generate Ideas with Visual Tools 

2. Use Other Sources to Find Keywords e.g. Search in CREDO

Credo Logo


3. Look for Subjects (Controlled Vocabulary) Assigned to Articles in Databases.