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Nursing Library Orientation: 2. Identify Keywords

An online library orientation for nursing students.

2. Keywords: The Key to Searching Library Resources

Why do we need to use keywords when searching library databases and PubMed?

Most students learned how to search for information using Google. While Google can handle full questions or sentences (also called "natural language searching"), library resources and PubMed work best if you search only the keywords in your question. This is because Google can ignore unimportant words, while a database will look for results that contain every single word that you enter into the search box. The more unimportant words you use, the less likely you are to find results. In this section, we will learn how to conduct precise searches using keywords. 



Keywords are the most important concepts in a research question. To identify the keywords from a research question: 

--Ignore minor words and verbs

--Ignore generic words like effect, impact, cause, increase, decrease, best, etc.

--Try starting with just two concepts and then build from there

--Instead of including the age group or gender you are interested in, you may want to try using the limiters in the databases instead.

--Same with nursing: instead of including the words nurses or nurse's role in your search, try limiting your search results to nursing journals instead. 

Once you identify the keywords in your question, it is essential to make a list of synonyms for each of your concepts. This is because there is likely to be more than one way to search for each concept in your question. You need to familiarize yourself with the keywords and terminology experts use for your topic so that you can find all the relevant literature. 


--> Watch the brief video below to learn how to identify keywords in a research question. 

Odyssey Learning Project. (2020, April 8). Keyword basics [Video]. YouTube.






Keyword search tips

  • DON'T enter a full question or complete sentence into a library database or catalog.
  • Try to brainstorm some additional synonyms for each of your keywords.
  • When you find an article that matches your topic, skim the abstract for other keywords you could try!
  • Also check the keywords or subject headings that have been assigned to relevant articles.
  • Keep track of your keywords and add to your list as you find more in the literature. 
  •  You might need to try several different combinations of keywords before you hit on the right combination!

NOTE TO BSN students:  Your research question will most likely be structured in the PICO(T) format. See this handout for more information building a search strategy with PICO(T). Also check out the EBN guide.