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PUBH 1101 - Public Health and Social Justice (List): Brainstorm Key Terms for a Search

Interactive Tutorial

Interested in an interactive version of this tutorial, or were you told to take one by a professor? If so, please click here!

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What's your topic?

First, you'll need to think about your topic. A topic can be pretty general to start with, but will get narrower the more you learn about it. Some examples of topics are:

  • Activism
  • Social media
  • Reproductive rights and/or restrictions
  • Gun laws
  • Popular culture

What do you want to know about your topic?

Once you have a basic idea of what you want to research, it helps to think more specifically about what you want to know about that topic. This phase is often where you generate a research question.

Some examples of research questions from the topics above are:

  • Activism – how has organizing a protest changed in the internet era?
  • Social media – what effect does constant exposure to social media have on mental health?
  • Reproductive rights and/or restrictions – how has legislation of birth control changed over the past decade?
  • Gun laws – was the Second Amendment meant to apply to the caliber of weapon available today?
  • Popular culture – how is gender bias portrayed through reality TV?

What words in your research question are most important?

Once you've got a better idea of what you want to know about your topic, you can start by picking some keywords straight from your research question. You can do that by choosing which words are key to your understanding of that topic.

Keywords you could use to search on the example topics are in bold and full phrases you could search for are in (parentheses):

  • Activism – how has organizing a protest changed in the (internet era)?
  • Social media – what effect does constant exposure to (social media) have on (mental health)?
  • (Reproductive rights) and/or restrictions – how has legislation of (birth control) changed over the past decade?
  • (Gun laws) – was the (Second Amendment) meant to apply to the caliber of weapon available today?
  • Popular culture – how is (gender bias) portrayed through (reality TV)?

How else can you think about this topic?

Once you've exhausted all the resources that resulted from that first search with keywords generated from your research question, you can start to think about what else about your topic you can search for. This can include synonyms, related terms, or tangential topics.

For the sake of keeping this simple, we'll use only one of the above topics as an example. Keywords you could use to search on the example topic are in bold and full phrases you could search for are in (parentheses):

  • Reproductive rights and/or restrictions – how has legislation of birth control changed over the past decade?
    • There are probably related terms you could search such as abortion
    • You could research specific types of birth control such as (birth control pill) or just (the pill), or condoms or (birth control implant)
    • You can also think about related societal topics, such as (economic impact) on women who were unable to acquire birth control or abort
    • Sometimes you have to think about how keywords or phrases can have "implicit bias"... for instance, the term "reproductive rights" tends to be used more by those in favor of easily-obtainable birth control

Sometimes it might help to map out your thinking. A concept map or "mind map" is an illustration of your literal thinking process. It can be useful to narrow down your topic because it helps you visualize where your brain is going when it thinks about that topic.

Here's an example of a mind map for the topic above (click the image to enlarge):

A mind map of the research question "How has legislation of birth control changed over the past decade?" Text below gives more details.

The mind map illustrates a way to think about your topic and research question. There are three main things you need to know, and other things you can think about in relation to them:

  1. What legislation related to birth control already exists?
    • At what level (state or nationwide)?
    • Are there significant court cases you could research?
  2. Basic facts about types of birth control and what they're used for
    • What happens if it isn't used or doesn't work?
    • What results from getting an abortion, giving a child up for adoption, or raising a child you hadn't planned for?
  3. What are reproductive rights?
    • Is it just about "pro-life" and "pro-choice?" Or is there more to it?
    • Does using the term "reproductive rights" indicate any kind of bias? What else could you look for?

Using Subject Terms

Having trouble coming up with more ways to search on your topic? Try subject terms!

Subject terms are the words or phrases under which the Library catalog or a database have filed resources. For instance, the subject term "Reproductive rights -- United States" is applied to certain books in the Library catalog that have to do with that topic.

A screenshot of a book in the Library catalog with the subject term "reproductive rights -- United States" clickable under "Subject" in the "Details" section

If you click that term, it will take you to all books that were also categorized under that subject term, which can be a good way to discover new resources.

Databases have a similar tool. The name varies depending on the database. Some also call it "Subject Terms," some call it "Thesaurus," some call it "Subject Headings," some might call it something else entirely. But they all do the same thing. In databases, they're usually even searchable, which can help you see if there's a better, more discipline-specific way to refer to that topic.

It's a Process!

Whatever you do, remember that research is not a one-and-done... it's an iterative process. Iterative means multi-step, as in you're never going to have a perfect topic, research question, or search the first time you try. You're going to need to adjust as you find out more about your topic and you're likely going to change direction once or twice too.