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Identify Keywords

Many times you will have a research question or thesis statement as you begin to research. When using library resources, it's usually best to pick out the main concepts of your topic and search by using these (referred to as keywords), instead of a sentence or question. Consider which parts of your topic are essential, and use those.

When looking for keywords, focus on nouns and noun phrases; these are more effective search terms. Ignore verbs and words like influenced, affected, etc. If you are looking for ethical implications of a topic, you can add ethic* to your search. This tells the search tool to look for any word beginning with 'ethic,' including ethics and ethical. It can help place your research question within an ethical context.

The main keywords for the following research questions are bolded and in purple:

  • How would virtue ethics apply to considerations about genetic engineering?
  • How does objectivism view religion?
  • Will artificial intelligence ever have true consciousness?

You can combine your essential keywords with the word AND. AND means that all these words must be present in your search results.

  • virtue ethics AND genetic engineering
  • objectivism AND religion
  • artificial intelligence AND consciousness

To keep phrases (two or more words) together, place them in quotation marks: "virtue ethics"

Often when researching philosophical issues, you may need to find resources that give you information about a topic without a philosophical analysis. You can then bring in information about philosophical theories for your own analysis.

For instance, consider the above research question, "How would virtue ethics apply to considerations about genetic engineering?" You may need to locate general information about genetic engineering or general ethical concerns about genetic engineering, and then apply the basics of virtue ethics on your own.

Subjects -- A Better Way to Search

Sometimes your topic can be expressed in many different ways. Which is the right way? There are also ways that experts in a field phrase a term that are different than common usage. Using controlled vocabulary can help you retrieve better search results. This is like a hashtag for a topic, and will let you find the scholarly conversation available. By using the official terms, you will find more relevant results. 

Controlled vocabulary is frequently referred to as subjects or subject headings. You can scan library catalog and database results for sources that look relevant and see which subjects are listed.

Subjects in library catalog record

Subject Terms in Academic Search Complete record

Adding Keywords to Search Tools

Most of the library search tools will have two types of search screens: a basic search screen and an advanced search screen.

Basic search screens typically have one search box, and may have a drop-down box next to it. Type your keywords in the box and separate each one with the word AND. This tells the search tool to look for all these words. You may use quotation marks to keep a phrase together.

Library catalog basic search for: keyword = robots AND consciousness

If you would like to tell the search tool where to look for your search terms, change the Keyword drop-down box. Common options are title, author, and subject. When you change the box to one of these options, the search tool will only look for the words you entered in those areas. You do not need to change the drop-down box. If you do not change the drop-down box, your search terms will be looked for throughout the entire record (that is, the information describing each result). This is also how you can limit your search to subjects for better results.

Library catalog basic search for: subject = consciousness

Most search tools will have an advanced search option. Advanced search has multiple search boxes, with each box having its own drop-down. This allows you to search for different keywords in different areas. For instance, you can search for one of your keywords in the title and another in the author field. Many of the library databases have the advanced search as the default.

Academic Search Complete advanced search for: artificial intelligence AND consciousness

You do not have to fill each search box, and you do not need to change each drop-down. If you do not change the drop-down box, your search terms will be looked for throughout the entire record (that is, the information describing each result).