Skip to main content

DIY Research Guide: 1. Identify Key Concepts

Find answers to frequently asked questions.

Before You Do Anything...

The first step in the research process is to identify the key concepts of your topic.

From these key concepts you will generate the keywords needed to search the library's catalog and article databases.

Tips:

If you are unfamiliar with your topic, you may want to start gathering background information (Step 2)  as you identify the key concepts and develop keywords.

First: Identify Key Concepts

Identifying a topic's underlying concepts can help you build your search strategy and set parameters. 

Start off by writing down your research topic and looking at the important nouns and verbs.  Do these nouns and verbs truly define the key concepts you are investigating or are there other underlying concepts at play?  You should be aware of both the obvious concepts and the underlying ones.

Quick Tip:

It often helps to articulate your research topic in writing, because research is heavily dependent on language and the words we use to search. 

Example:

Let's look at an example research topic and determine the concepts behind the information need.

Topic:  Is expansion of offshore oil drilling an important solution to rising U.S. gasoline prices?

Key Concepts:  offshore oil drilling expansion, gasoline prices, United States

Potential Underlying Concepts: Environmental impact of oil drilling, gasoline price's effect on US consumers, foreign oil trade

Second: Identify Keywords

Keywords are the words you type into the search box when using a search tool.  Keywords, therefore, are your search terms, the words the search tool will hunt to find. Having the right keyword can mean the difference between hours of frustrating, unsuccessful research and hours of exhilerating, abundant research.

Consider the key concepts your identified for your topic.  Start by translating those concepts into keywords you can potentially use when searching different online search tools.  The best way to come up with keywords is to find the synonyms of your key concepts. 

Quick Tip:

For some search tools, like Google, you can type or paste in your entire topic and gets relevant results, but many search tools require more sophisticated handling.  Using keywords instead of whole sentences helps streamline the search process for both you and the search tools you use.  See below for more details.

Example:

Let's look at an example research topic and determine the keywords to use when searching:

Topic:  Is expansion of offshore oil drilling an important solution to rising U.S. gasoline prices?

Key Concepts:  offshore oil drilling expansion, gasoline prices, United States

Keywords: offshore oil drilling or offshore drilling or deep water oil drilling, gasoline or gas prices or oil prices, United States or America or American, etc.

Words you don't need to search for and why: 

  • is, of, an, to--In general, words like articles, prepositions, and indicative verbs can be ignored because they are so common. 
  • expansion, important, solution, rising--In general, adjectives and words that indicate a relationship between two concepts should be ignored because they may eliminate otherwise relevant results from your search. The more keywords you add to your search, the fewer results you will retrieve. 

Underlying Concepts:

As you research and evaluate the material you uncover, you may want to incorporate additional concepts into your searches, including the underlying concepts you identitfied earlier.  Treat them as you would any concepts, hunt for keywords and synonyms that best describe the concept.  Be sure to look for more synonyms, keywords, and concepts as you research!

Test Yourself

What are the keywords in the research topic below?

Topic #1Should U.S. states and cities insist that food stamps be spent on healthy foods to reduce the prevalence of health problems linked to obesity?

Keywords


Topic #2: Should U.S. adoption records be open rather than sealed?

Keywords:


Topic #3: To what extent does the private life and private morality of a public figure affect his or her ability to serve the public interest?

Keywords:

Need Help?

Please enable Javascript to use this chat service.

You can also contact us by:

  • Phone: 606-783-5491
  • Email: use our Online Email Form
  • Or in person at the Camden-Carroll Library!