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Systematic searching: 3. Coming up with keywords

Coming up with keywords

Once you have established your key concepts, you can start brainstorming so called keywords. Keywords are terms of scientific colloquialisms that are used when talking about a topic. In order to get the most comprehensive search results, you need to come up with as many synonyms and other equivalent terms as possible, concept by concept. Keep in mind that you are likely to find more new search terms as your work progresses. 

Use e.g. a Word file to keep your search terms and your search strings safe and up to date.

Help with finding keywords

In principle, you can use any source that contains relevant vocabulary to help you come up with keywords.

  • experts, teachers, instructors
  • subject heading lists, also known as controlled vocabularies or thesauri, such as
  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • databases (preliminary searches)
  • textbooks
  • internet search engines
  • Wikipedia
  • relevant articles
  • auxiliary tools, e.g. PubReMiner

Also check out the search terms guide for more help. 

Why is it important to come up with many keywords?

  • Different continents and different disciplines use different terms to describe the same topic
  • Words may have slightly different spellings
    • e.g. American English vs. British English

Should abbreviations be used as search terms?

  • As a rule, abbreviations do not need to be included in the search terms, as they are almost always written in full in the abstract. In addition, especially in multidisciplinary databases, an abbreviation may stand for different word combinations, which can lead to a large number of irrelevant results. 

Nursing students' hand hygiene skills


Concept 1 Concept 2  Concept 3
student nurses handwashing competence
nursing students hand washing skills
nursing pupils hand hygiene knowledge
pupil nurses hand sanitation know-how
nursing education  hand sanitization knowhow
hand disinfection
hand cleansing
hand cleaning
surgical scrubbing