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Brainstorm Key Terms for a Search

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What's Your Topic?

First, you'll need to think about your topic. A topic can be general to start, but will become narrower the more you learn about it.


For the purposes of this guide, our example topic will be "Reproductive rights and/or restrictions."

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. Some people will call this 'determining your information needs'. This phase is often where you generate a research question.


An example research question for our topic (reproductive rights and/or restrictions) is: "How has the legislation of birth control changed over the past decade?"

What Words in Your Research Question are Most Important?

Once you get a better idea of what you want to know about your topic, start by picking 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 topic are in bold and full phrases you could search for are in (parentheses):


(Reproductive rights) and/or restrictions – How has the legislation of (birth control) changed over the past decade?

How Else Can You Think About This Topic?

Once you've gone through the sources found in the first search using keywords generated from your research question, you should start to think about what else involving your topic you can search for. This can include synonyms, related terms, or tangential topics.

Using the same example as above. Keywords you can 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 the legislation of birth control changed over the past decade?
    • Terms or concepts relating to abortion.
    • You may decide to focus on specific types of birth control such as (birth control pill) or (the pill), condoms, or (birth control implant).  Even more focused, you could narrow in on specific brands (for example, the implant's most common brands are Implanon and Nexplanon).
    • You may want to explore societal impacts, such as the (economic impact) on women who are unable to acquire birth control or obtain access to legal abortion.
    • Do your keywords have an implicit bias? For example, the terms "right to choose" and "right to life" are loaded phrases that contain the conclusion of the person using them.


Sometimes, it can help to map out your thinking. A concept map, or mind map, is an illustration of your thinking process. It can be useful to narrow down your topic because it helps visualize where your brain is going when it thinks about a given topic. Click here to see a mind map for our example topic.

Using Subject Terms

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

Subject terms are words and phrases under that the Library catalog and databases use to define and organize sources. For instance, the subject term "Reproductive rights -- United States" is applied to certain books in the Library catalog that have to do with the 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


Clicking a subject term will take you to a list of all the books that include the subject term.

Databases have a similar tool, the name varies depending on the database. Some call it "Subject Terms," others call it "Thesaurus," or "Subject Headings." They all do the same thing. In many databases, they're even searchable, meaning you can search for key terms specifically within the subject term field.

It's a Process!

Always remember that research is nimage of a magnifying glass on a computer keyboardot a one-and-done process, but is iterative. Iterative means multi-step, as in you may need to move through parts of the process multiple times for a single project. For example, you may find that you need to adjust the research question based on your initial research. You may find that your initial set of key terms aren't working well, in which case you need to brainstorm new key terms or look for synonyms. This is all okay, and doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong.