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Introduction to library research in the arts: Identifying search terms

An introduction to research concepts and techniques for University of Redlands students in fine, literary and performing arts, developed as an Open Educational Resource (OER)

Learning objective

  • Make a list of search terms.

How to identify search terms

Now that you have a research question, you can begin identifying the terms you'll use to find information in web searches and library search tools.

Let's start with the research question from our case study in the previous section. We'll underline the most important nouns in the question.

How are California high schools using restorative justice to address inequalities and help students of color to be successful in school?

Start making a list of search terms, beginning with the words you have underlined:

  • California high schools
  • restorative justice
  • inequalities
  • students of color

This video from McMaster University Libraries suggests some more helpful tips for choosing search terms:

  • brainstorm search terms before you actually start searching
  • use concepts (nouns), not the relationships between concepts (verbs)
  • limit the number of search terms that you use at any one time

Don't worry if you think of more than 2-4 search terms. You can rotate among your terms.

Keep a running list of search terms. You'll add to the list as you do more research and your understanding of your research question - and the information you need to address it - changes.

Don't change your topic!

One of the biggest mistakes novice researchers make is to change their topic the first time they have an unfruitful search.

There is a lot of information out there. It may not be easy to find at first, but the strategies on this research guide, and working with a librarian in person, can help you find it. Also, if a topic is interesting enough for you to want to research it, it's likely that others are interested in it too.

When you have trouble finding sources on your topic, try coming back to these strategies rather than simply changing your topic.

identifying search terms

Infographic from McMaster University Libraries on how to choose search terms

Once you've created a list of search terms based on your question, add more concepts that are related in one of these ways:

  • synonyms
    • secondary education is another way of saying high school
  • broader concepts that include your terms
    • public schools include high schools
    • restorative justice is one example of the broader category of social emotional learning (SEL)
  • narrower terms that are part of your term
    • Black students are one group within students of color


"Choosing search terms infographic" was created by McMaster University Libraries under a CC-BY license

Key point

  • Make a list of search terms based on your research question, and keep adding to it throughout your research project.