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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)
Module 2
2.0 Objectives
2.1 Definition of Research
2.2 Using a Topic
2.3 Broadening Your Research
2.4 Narrowing the Topic
2.5 Choosing Keywords
2.6 Self-Quiz

Tip to remember:

Many words have different meanings in different contexts. For example, Muhammad Ali was a boxer. The Boxer Rebellion took place in China. Give the computer enough information to tell the difference.



 Test yourself! Can you identify the key words?


Broader terms

What broad disciplines or subjects may address your research question?

Related terms

Synonyms and other terms that describe issues or activities that relate to your key concepts.

Narrower terms

Specific examples of your key concepts. These might be cases, events, names, places, etc.






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Modules: 1 Information | 2 Topics | 3 Searching | 4 Locating | 5 Evaluating | 6 Sharing | 7 RML Catalog

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