Keywords are a useful feature of academic publishing. Most journals require authors to supply five or six keywords, which are often published with the abstract, or included in the information sent to databases. Keywords were invented to help researchers identify articles about subjects of interest quickly and easily, even if they are not regular readers of the journals in question. They act to supplement the information given in the title: titles do not always explicitly refer to the article’s areas of relevance. For example, a review article with the title “New approaches to drug delivery in hepatology” may include a detailed section on nanotechnology – but unless we know the field well, we are unlikely to guess this from the title.
So how can we choose the right keywords? Some journals, such as the Journal of Crystal Growth, actually supply a list of possible keywords, while others make a few stipulations, such as not to use words from the title of the journal itself. However, most journals leave the decision to the author. One thing to remember is that there is no need to repeat what is in the title. The words in the title are automatically included in indexes and databases, so keywords should complement these to ensure that more people read our article. It is important that these words should be specific enough to indicate what is in our paper – but also general enough to attract a wide readership. Here are some practical suggestions from the journal websites:
- Read through your paper and note down the terms or phrases that seem to be very frequent in the text.
- Consult a glossary or standard indexing list for your field of research (for education, try using ERIC Thesaurus).
- Include at least one keyword that refers to the method you used. Researchers sometimes look for papers that apply particular methods.
- Do not use multiple concepts, such as “teaching and learning mathematics in primary school”. These should be two separate keywords.
- If certain abbreviations are widely used in your field, you can use them as keywords. Do not use abbreviations that readers are unlikely to recognise.
- When you have chosen some keywords, put them into a search engine, and look at what comes up. If the articles that appear have something in common with your paper, then the keywords are probably right.
- If general visibility is a priority, you can also use web tools such as Google Trends to find out which topics are becoming popular, and try to relate your keywords to these.
More information on how to publicise your research, and how to find out what issues are topical, can be found on: