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Choosing search terms

The search terms you choose are of great importance for what results you will get from your search. Therefore, make sure to choose your search terms with care.

In order to get to know a subject and identify suitable search terms, subject-specific encyclopedias and handbooks with research overviews are useful tools. These publications provide an introduction to the terminology used within the discipline. Read more in the guide Sources and how to use them.

Scholarly publishing is mostly done in English. Therefore, it is often English search words that you need.

Before you start to search, it is a good idea to divide the research question of your thesis into a number of concepts. For example, the research question "How does corruption affect the democratization process in poor countries?" can be divided into concepts like corruption, poor countries and democratization process.

Synonyms, language variations, and related terms

Think of what synonyms and related terms there are for each concept. At this stage of the process, it might be a good idea to make mind maps or lists of all the relevant terms you can think of in order to see how they are related. See examples of how this might look like in Rumsey (2008, pp. 55-58).

Consider the fact that different databases may use different terms when defining a subject area. From our example - How does corruption affect the democratization process in poor countries? - you might think of the following synonyms and related terms:

corruptiondemocratization processpoor countries
briberydemocratisationdeveloping countries
bribespolitical developmentthird world
nepotismdemocratizeglobal south
political corruption  

Pay attention to the fact that British and American English sometimes vary in their spelling of certain words, e.g. organisation/organization. Also, do not forget that words may be in singular or plural forms.

Broader and narrower terms

Sometimes you might need to search for broader terms with a wider perspective to be sure to capture all relevant material. In other cases, that kind of search might result in far too many hits, and it would be better to search with more specific terms.

Terms and concepts of databases

It is a good idea to use a database's own subject headings, often called thesaurus, index or subject headings, in order to find descriptive search words. By browsing such a list of words you will understand how the terms and concepts are used in the database, and how they relate to other terms and concepts within the same subject area.


Rumsey, S. (2008). How to find information: A guide for researchers (2. ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press. Retrieved from

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Content updated 2017-12-15

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