Moving From Keywords to A Subject Search :

Researching Your Topic

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Moving From Keywords to A Subject Search :

Often a student will say something like "I want to do a paper on recycling" or "I want to do something on arbitration." In that case, the student's search process is beginning with keywords (the keywords are recycling or arbitration). Keyword is the name for any word you might normally use to describe your topic. The first step in a good research process is to move from the keyword stage to a search based on the right subject terms. If you start by looking up your keywords in your library's card catalog (or on the Web), you may waste hours of valuable time sorting through useless information and never even find the right information for your paper.

Maybe all you know is that you want to write about a popular American novelist or about painters or recycling or arbitration. How do you get from those words to subject terms - the terms librarians use to index books and articles - and from subject terms to a research question? Here are some of the ways: Read about your topic. Talk to people who know about it. Look for more information. Try to find out through reading and conversation what the subject terms relevant to your topic might be.

Go to the Library of Congress Subject Headings List, a multivolume bound book (the big red book) available at most library reference desks. It will help you translate your keywords into the right subject terms.

Many online databases make available lists of descriptors (their name for subject terms) and you can consult such lists directly to find a particular database's way(s) of naming your subject. For example, the Thesaurus of Descriptors for the Education Resources Information Clearinghouse (ERIC) database yields subject terms that make searching that database more effective. And if you use the ProQuest database and text retrieval service, one of its search screens will show you its list of subject terms.

You can go to a subject tree such as the one on the bottom of the Yahoo! home screen ( or the one at The Virtual Library ( and by clicking on the word from the first screen that most nearly matches your interest, let the computer take you further and further into your search. These techniques helped a student writer get from arbitration to Shearson v. McMahon. They can also be used to get from women painters to Artemisia Gentileschi or from contemporary novelists to Richard Russo.

Another good way to find subject terms for your topic is to ask an expert. Yet another good way is to use a trick called backward searching: if you can find one good "hit" - one article or book exactly on your topic - then you can look that article or book up in your library catalog or in the databases or indexes appropriate for your field, find out what subject terms are used to index that item and then feed those terms back into the database or library catalog you are using and see what else might be listed under them.

To continue the section on Make a Research Outline...,

1. Moving From Keywords to A Subject Search

2. Reference Tools

3. Subject Trees

4. The Library Catalog

5. Search Engines

6. Indexes and Databases

7. Databases and Archives

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