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SPURS - guide for instructors

Brainstorming Keywords

Keywords

Developing a keyword strategy is important. A lot of students spend a lot of time searching, even on Google. This causes search fatigue and breeds frustration and a hatred for research. You may hear them lament, “I can’t find anything on my topic!”

Additionally, you may find that students are using only a fraction of what you know is written about a topic. This could be students giving up too early, or it could be that they are using the same search terms over and over and retrieving the same results each time. 

After doing some background research, have the student brainstorm keywords on their topic by dividing up the important concepts and organizing them into a grid. You can help them organize their thoughts by identifying the first column as the main concept, the second column as what people are arguing about, and the third column as the stakeholders, or who cares about the topic. You may have less than three columns, or more than three, depending on the topic. For example, 
Should plastic bags be banned in Austin?

 
                                 AND                                     AND
          
shopping bags                against the law                    City of Austin
OR     grocery bags                  outlaw                                  city council
          reusable bags                prohibit                                 environmentalists
                                              recycling                               consumers
                                              pollution                                plastic bag manufacturers
                                              landfills                                 HEB
                                              marine life                             Whole Foods
                                                                                              
What do the AND and OR do? That's how you link your keywords in a database search. Such as, "plastic bags AND ban OR against the law AND city of Austin OR Mayor Steve Adler" The more ANDs you use, the narrower the search. ORs will broaden the search.     
"I can't find articles about people who are pro plastic bags!" Sometimes a topic has a marked unpopular viewpoint. When brainstorming keywords, think about why someone would be against the ban on plastic bags. Would it cost the HEB more money to have more paper bags on hand, thereby driving up food prices? Is there a local plastic bag manufacturer that would be put out of business? Sometimes students perform searches such as, "pro plastic bags" and are surprised when they get no results, or disappointed that their topic doesn't exist in article form somewhere already. 

Keyword brainstorming tips!
  • Keywords can help narrow a search. Plastic bags AND ban is a very broad search. You can limit it by adding another keyword, such as Austin or HEB. Think about keywords as a way to limit to a particular viewpoint - be it by geography or by person or group of people.
  • Keywords can bring bias with them if they are value-laden. Choose neutral terms if you want informational articles, such as "undocumented workers". For articles with a viewpoint, choose terms like "illegal immigrants" or "illegal aliens". It's likely that the person writing the article uses these terms as part of an argument.

Try this!

How to Generate Keywords - This interactive tool guides you through the process of creating an effective keyword search for your research topic and then allows you to email the results to yourself and/or your instructor. You can also launch the search in the Library Catalog (to find books) or Academic Search Complete (to find popular and scholarly articles)
Research Log - Walks you through the brainstorming process on paper.

Google search tips

Narrow your results by using these tricks in Google

  • Search for an exact phrase by putting your search terms in quotation marks (ex: “dream act”)  
  • Search only a specific site (ex: usda.gov) or domain (ex:.org) by typing in your search followed by site:.org, site:.gov (ex: dream act site:congress.gov)
  • Eliminate results from a specific site (ex: .com) by typing in your search followed by -.com

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